‘Tonight thank God it’s them’: Brexit, food, resentment and inequality

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I once taught ‘Business English’ to the owner of a hedge fund in Mayfair*. It turned out he’d started his company in the year 2008. That’s…auspicious, I remarked. Once I’d explained the word and helped him do a cost benefit analysis on whether it was worth committing to memory, he dismissed my suggestion that a financial company might have suffered the effects of a massive global financial crisis with the words “We’re above all that”.

Reflecting over the course of the last Midwinter Shopping And Stuffing Your Face Festival in its present form, I’ve been struck by the thought that Brexit represents something of the same order in relation to food. My mother grew up with rationing, and possibly as a result tends to overprovide at family gatherings. She’s lucky to be able to (just) afford to do so; anyone who’s been near the Department of Social Security of late knows that rationing exists again in the form of government-mandated food banks. The calculated humiliation involved may well have helped cause Brexit**, although anyone tempted by the ultraleftist notion that widespread suffering after March 29th will inevitably lead to revolution should be warned: people who’ve had the shit kicked out of them are less likely to fight back, in much the same way as no dead person has ever won a major boxing title. (Muhammed Ali doesn’t count, as although he did win some of his titles under a different name, he wasn’t dead when he did so.)

It was partly a seasonal internet kerfuffle in response to this tweet by an ardent Corbyn supporter that set me thinking about food, resentment, inequality and Brexit. Corbyn probably won’t be among the worst affected by food shortages, as he famously has an allotment. In, I will argue, much the same way, ‘people’ (or at least cartoon characters) like Rees-Mogg have enormous estates which could easily and profitability be farmed by the idle poor, so they’re more likely to see mass starvation as an opportunity rather than a threat.

As the fog clears around Brexit and reveals itself to have been steam on a ever-freshly replenished mound of shit, certain themes become clear. They are gathered and explored in Fintan O’Toole’s excellent book ‘Heroic Failures: Brexit and the politics of pain’, which details how this particular stew of self-aggrandisement, self-pity and resentment of others was concocted, and how it’s led to everyone on HMS Shit Britain looking, if not queasy, then certainly depressed.

Food snobbery is one of those themes. Only an outside observer could have noticed our ongoing pathologies in our relationship with food and our attitudes towards others’ eating habits. O’Toole recalls Boris Johnson’s championing of cheap, popular food in the form of Prawn Cocktail crisps and his sneering at metropolitan liberals’ taste for Italian peasant cuisine while he himself continued to enjoy the very best that Tuscany has to offer. Class resentment and the manifold hypocrisies it entails found expression in the fetid burp that was the Brexit vote. Just as Johnson would not dream of even sniffing at a Turkey Twizzler, Rees-Mogg has no more set foot in a Tesco Metro than his ancestors sacrificed themselves for glory little more than a century ago. Brexit embodies not so much the spirit of the Blitz as the loud, clear echoes of the sacrifice of the Somme. An upper-class version of British history may exhort us to sacrifice ourselves pro patria, but it’s the martyrdom of others further down the scale which tends to result.

Just as a century ago ruling class generals boasted of greater glory and honour while casually tossing away millions of lesser lives, failed negotiator David Davies appeared on Question Time in December 2018 talking of a so-called “no-deal” Brexit as the country’s “Destiny”; much as crowds lined the streets in 1914 to cheer the soldiers off to war, Davies’ vainglorious appeal was greeted with wild applause. I also heard loud, clear echoes of Mussolini. The line between the hard right and the far-right is an increasingly thin one.

At our family Christmas, conversations (thankfully) steered clear of Brexit, revolving instead around food: various tropes which involve bitching about what our neighbours in the supermarket queue are and aren’t consuming. In his book ‘The Chinese’ Jasper Becker identifies Chinese peasants’ dreams of abundant food as the main ingredient in Chinese history. The murky gravy that is ‘British identity’ always seems to contain several lumps of resentment of and scorn for others’ eating habits, and even the fact that they get to eat at all. There was a telling moment a while back when Michael Gove started raging that China had refused to take any more of our plastic and burn it for us. For the leading Brexit conspirators such as him, the fact that those Chinese peasants nowadays gorge on cheap chicken and pork and can no longer be forced to consume British opium seems to fuel their righteous fury.

This mentality, that it is our god-given right to make others suffer for our own benefit, can be traced back at least easily as far as the Irish and Bengal famines. Ironically it was a pair of c*lts (Bob Geldof and Midge Ure) who created the modern hymn to this aspect of Empire. That high priest of celebrity sanctimoniousness Bono didn’t write the song, but he did caterwaul the most obnoxious line, sounding while doing so like he was off his face on piety. Viewed in emotional sobriety, the lyrics embody a certain strain of Catholicism particularly prevalent in the Ireland of the 1950s-60s: nuns collecting for little black babies, for the godless barely deserving of the life that we may, in our infinite charity and mercy, deign to grant them with.

We might look kindly on the original audience for the song given its very 1980s commodification of pity, its witless neo-Victorian platitudes and staggeringly offensive generalisations in an era characterised by the ‘late failure of radical hopes’. But it struck me that its continued popularity (even, I’d venture, increasing prominence) speaks of resentment, of celebrating the suffering of others. Bono’s line ‘Tonight thank God it’s them, instead of you’ put me immediately in mind of O’Toole discussion of the concept of ‘sadopopulism’: the willingness to inflict pain on oneself on the understanding that by doing so you are making your enemy suffer more. You might think of it as cutting off your own nose to spite your neighbour’s face. In another echo of Empire and of slavery, it recalls Ta-Nehesi Coates’ explanation of the racism of poor whites in the American South: as long as they had someone else to look down upon, they felt secure. Upon seeing a black man in the White House they revolted against their reduced status, and Trump was the result. Similar dynamics operated in the UK with regard to the loss of Empire, and the result was not just (contrary to what Paul Gilroy argued) mere melancholy, but the bigoted fury of Geoffrey Bloom, the woman on the Croydon tram and many (but not all) of those who voted to leave the EU.

Thus does Brexit represent a case of (chlorinated) chickens coming home to roost. This is exacerbated in the case of those who know they won’t suffer, in the proud British tradition of offering up others’ lives for sacrifice. One TV survivalist stated openly on Twitter what Farage et al must surely be saying off-camera: that maybe a period of intense poverty and suffering will teach ‘us’ a valuable lesson. (This might give us pause to think, post-Bros documentary, about the relationship between celebrity and fascism, but for the fact that, as Labour’s purported Brexit strategy somehow fails to acknowledge, we don’t have much time.***)

At least Thatcherite self-interest as an ideology had a logic to it, whether that involved the famous boats of grain being dumped in the sea to ensure that failed Ethiopian consumers didn’t buck the market, or young people eventually smashing shop windows to simply take that which they had long been tormented by their (individual, always individual) failure to obtain legitimately. But in essence Johnson and Rees-Mogg are not neoliberals. They don’t actually believe all that Raabian horseshit about buccaneer entrepreneurship. One might call them neocons, in that their primary dedication is to preservation of their own wealth and power. I find it more useful to think of them as elitists. One wonders what Thatcher (pbuh) would have made of Johnson’s ‘Fuck business!’ comment. Capitalism is after all only one means of preserving elite power. Farage’s equally underreported line about dressing up in khaki points to an as yet unquenched desire for hard rather than soft power. Tragically, Labour (and Owen Jones) chose not to see that Tommy Robinson failed the shock troop audition. “3,000 racist internet trolls” is the eloquent answer to the question of how well prepared the far-right is to maintain order.

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As things stand now, on the 6th January, there appears to be an overlap between Rees-Mogg and the Labour leadership’s desire to make Brexit happen whatever the cost. In the current climate it’s not impossible to imagine Corbyn being photographed sneaking out of Rees-Mogg’s Mayfair apartment late at night. I made the then-barmy prediction that Rees-Mogg would somehow end up Tory leader, but I didn’t  foresee that their interests would align. (If only I was better at thinking dialectically…). It would be nice to be able to dismiss out of hand Nick Cohen’s very-Nick Cohen-esque argument for Corbyn as an ultraleftist looking to exploit social breakdown to storm the Winter Palace, but that word ‘climate’ reminds me that one of his closest supporters is someone who may well have sat round the same family table for the Christmas nutroast: his distinctly undigestible brother. Not only does Piers have a day job providing hysterical weather predictions to the Daily Express, he also takes money from climate-lying organisations to turn up to events related to climate change to barrack those trying to save the human race. He’s very much in favour of a no-deal Brexit, and he also thinks Jeremy would make an excellent PM. Reflecting on this makes me fear that if elected Jeremy’s first act would be to appoint David Icke as Minister for Lizard Eradication.

I don’t know whether Corbyn has studied in anything like sufficient detail the reports of what will happen in the event of a no deal scenario*****. (For the record he says he finds the notion “absolutely unacceptable”, but then he hasn’t come with a meaningful alternative beyond popping back to Brussels and renegotiating the whole thing in the space of two or so weeks. I presume this means he doesn’t mind offending the intelligence of everyone including those Labour voters who voted to leave.) He is a romantic rather than intellectual, one who gives the impression that after reading ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ in 6th form he thought, right well that’s all I’ll ever need to know about the world. When I was living in Rome I never got round to visiting the Keats and Shelley house, but I will have time to do so if we end up moving back there. Even Italy’s madcap government of criminals and clowns isn’t evil and insane enough to starve its own people out of pure ideological zealotry.

Anyone who doesn’t understand the stakes for the UK economy would be well-advised to reflect on how many Just Eat signs they see on failing fast food establishments interspersed with boarded-up shops on their next promenade down the nearest rapidly-running-down high street. Or consider the amount of people employed in food distribution and services compared to the number employed in agriculture. No external food supply means no economy. Britain’s is a consumer society based, as the caption on a Modern Toss cartoon once eloquently put it, on everyone eating like a fucking pig all the time. What is in prospect makes Trump’s years-long government shutdown seem measured and sensible. And it makes those who actually argue for a so-called “no deal” (final) solution look distinctly like Pol Pot.

As with climate breakdown, the only thing that matches the scale of the crisis in store is the extent to which almost everyone one meets has absolutely no intention of doing a single thing to prevent it. Like Chinese peasants after Jiang Zemin, we now have more than enough winter provisions of conspiracy theories, consoling fairy tales, fireside folk narratives to stave off the (actually, for some reason, not all that) cold and keep us over-entertained. If there was an in-out referendum on WiFi or food, I’m not all that sure we’d make the right choice. Do you want a stable climate or an iPhone? Would you prefer Netflix or death*****? At least if we can get online we can gorge on resentment, even if we have nothing left to eat.

The latest news about Brexit is that we ‘may’ be short of such rare delicacies as bananas and tomatoes but that’s okay because mid-spring is when so much excellent and bountiful English produce comes into season (instant fact-check: it isn’t). 40% of what we eat comes directly from the EU: everything else we import comes via it. The “no deal” plan is to stop trading in food. It is a no food scenario. This is shock doctrine as anorexia. Maybe Corbyn, who has yet to utter in public the only word that currently has meaning (revoke!) is under the impression that, like him, everyone in the country has access to an allotment. Perhaps his brother convinced him over a vegan mince pie that it’s going to be a particularly warm early spring for no discernible reason and that prize turnips and supermarrows will abound in Brexit Britain, before the whole family joined hands for a rousing rendition of ‘Do they know it’s Brexit?’.

Whatever happens, here’s a prediction: there won’t be any charity songs in the UK next Christmas time. The only gift we’ll get next year is…fuck knows. Some bananas and tomatoes, hopefully. “Where nothing ever grows…”. My mum grew up without bananas, but my baby daughter loves them. As for tomatoes, I’ve kept a few extra tins to hand so I can throw them very hard at anyone who still supports fucking Lexit.

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* That’s right: I’ve wasted my life and we are already in hell.
** It’s unlikely that Daniel Blake would have voted to stay in the EU.
*** Seeing as this piece partly addresses the psychological phenomenon of displacement activity, it behoves me to mention that I’ve actually got two actual essays to write.
**** I’ve been enjoying the series ‘Sunderland til I die’, I think partly because there is viele Schadenfreude in seeing a city which voted to leave the EU then get ejected from the Premier League and then the Championship in successive seasons.
***** I’d also be quite curious to know whether or not Jeremy Corbyn watches, as well as appearing on, Russia Today. I can imagine him enjoying Slavoj Zizek’s new chat show, which I’m not going anywhere near as my Youtube suggestions still haven’t recovered from the time I watched eight or nine seconds of David Icke-enthusiast and aspiring Beppe Grillo Russell Brand’s interview with J*rdan P*t*rson. Russell, if you’re reading this, read a fucking book for a change; and while I’m at it, if you happen to work for Youtube, no I’m not interested in even more racist videos, thank you very much.

Ps Just in case anyone thinks I’ve overegged how fucked up this country has become, here is a photo taken in Manchester today of people protesting against…Jesus it’s too depressing to even finish this sentence

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The ghost of Ayn Rand is haunting the streets of my hometown, wearing a hi-vis vest and carrying a chainsaw

I grew up in Sheffield in the 70s and 80s. Its cheap bus fares, theatres, museums and art galleries, its network of well-stocked libraries and its abundant green spaces made me into the person I am and gave me an abiding sense of respect for the value of public provision. I went to primary school in an area of the city called Greenhill, where they taught me how trees, by absorbing carbon dioxide and thus ensuring we have enough oxygen, help us to breathe.

I don’t live in Sheffield now, but all my family do, including my nieces, who all go to school in Hillsborough which they walk to and from along tree-lined streets. Those trees have attracted national attention recently because the local council is bowing to the demands of a private company and allowing a huge number of them to be cut down on the flimsiest and most selfish of pretexts. Although the trees represent £11.4 million in purported value*, there’s no way for Ferrovial (the transnational corporation which has, via its subsidiary Amey, bought up large parts of Sheffield City Council) to monetise it, and it costs to maintain them so they might as well chop them all down**.

Although some legal systems insist on granting them the same status as human beings, corporations don’t actually live and breathe. They do think, after a fashion, but they have only one obsessive thought: how to accumulate more wealth. They achieve this in large part by externalising their costs. PFI, the secretive and essentially deeply corrupt system of which Sheffield’s deal with Amey is part, has had a devastating impact on the wages and conditions of public servants. The rationale for the whole scheme is not just that the private sector is more efficient, but also that it grants access to global financial markets. Thus it represents not only a transfer of wealth from the public to the private sector, but also the exposure of essential public services to the whims and storms of the global market. Not quite by chance, it’s also accompanied by a lack of democratic transparency. Whether it be in Sheffield in relation to trees, or (my former London borough) Haringey with regard to housing, voters are not allowed to know what exactly has been agreed in their name.

Modern corporations are by definition psychopathic, in that nothing else matters to them but short-term self-interest. The possessors of great wealth have not always been so single-minded in the attempt to turn everything of public utility into private wealth. Centuries ago, feudal landlords created country estates like Chatsworth by turning commonly farmed land into symbols and sites of their power and wealth, thus depriving peasants of access to food and forcing them to move into cities to get jobs in factories as wage labourers. They sculpted the landscapes of their estates to demonstrate their command over nature, but at least they kept most of the trees standing. In the case of Sheffield, some local nabobs donated their land to the city, making it into one of the greenest in Europe. Some notable figures also funded the construction museums and art galleries.

For previous generations of capitalists, acres of trees not only stood as signs of wealth. They could also be pulped and transformed into physical money. The American writer Thomas Pynchon’s ancestral family fortune was made and then lost in paper, described in ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ as ‘the wholesale slaughtering of trees’, ‘producing toilet paper, banknote stock, newsprint—a medium or ground for shit, money, and the Word’. Before that they were fur traders, ‘still for the living green against the dead white’.

Nowadays capitalism, if it can still be called that, has entered a new phase, not that of the dead white but rather the flat white of the service economy, serving principally the needs of corporations. About twenty years ago I spent a year working in a corporate environment, in the technical support area of a software giant in Dublin. At the time I thought that computers were somehow exciting – I hadn’t yet realised that I was essentially working with hyped-up stationery. One episode stands out as emblematic of such organisations and how they operate. The company in question had a new piece of utility software for a brand-new version of the Apple Mac tantalisingly close to readiness, but the end of quarter was closing in and the programmers weren’t going to make the deadline. That didn’t stop the company from selling thousands of packages of the new version at a software trade fair in France – the problem came when the purchasers arrived home and to their horreur – zut alors! – discovered that the box contained a note explaining that the actual software wasn’t quite ready yet, but do please accept this database accounting programme as a temporary replacement. I have rarely felt so relieved not to speak better French, because my francophone colleagues had to explain to several thousand really, really, really fucking angry customers that they would have to wait just zat leetle bit longer. The enraged Mac enthusiasts weren’t exactly mollified when, a couple of weeks later, the actual disc arrived and turned out to be full of bugs which (I forget the exact technical details) shat all over the insides of their beloved iMacs. In order to save time, the company had curtailed the testing stage. Fortunately, things ended well, as the share price of Symantec (which was the name of the company) rose at the end of the quarter, so everyone was happy, except the people who actually wanted the software. They’re probably still vert de rage two decades later.

Nowadays if you need some software – say, Microsoft Word – you can just download it, but while in the intervening years you could do so for free, Silicon Valley has found new ways to make its products pay. Such programmes are now available for a yearly rent. Tech firms are thus the cutting edge not just of technology but also of new forms of buying and owning and the legal architecture that underpins them. In the book ‘I Hate The Internet’ Jarett Kobek nails one major inspiration for the ideology that inspires such innovation:

Ayn Rand [is] probably the most influential writer of the last fifty years. She wrote books about how social welfare recipients were garbage who deserved to die in the gutter. She was well regarded by very rich people unwilling to accept that their fortunes were a combination of random chance and an innate ability to humiliate others. Ayn Rand’s books told very rich people that they were good, that their pursuit of wealth was moral and just. Many of these people ended up as CEOs or in high levels of American government. Ayn Rand was the billionnaire’s best friend.’

Jonathan Freedland calls this ‘the age of Ayn Rand***’. She is worshipped, and her adolescent take on neoliberalism advanced, by hugely influential figures including Alan Greenspan, Paul Ryan, Peter Thiel and Jimmy Wales in the US and Sajid Javid and Daniel Hannan in the UK. The Rand cult is not the only source of such ideas – Thatcher and Reagan were devotees of Friedrich Hayek, whose doctrine, with its antiregulatory zeal, has come to dominate global politics over the last forty years – but it is an emblematic one.

Although the Little Red Book of the technocultural revolution, TED Talks, provides the comforting sense that corporate interests can be persuaded to act in the interests of humanity and the planet, with the innovative shift to a digital, virtual paper-free economy a symbol of this potential for environmental responsiblity, there’s nothing sustainable about an economic system which is wholly subservient to the ideology of self-interest. Such a form of capitalism is much more corrupt and infinitely more destructive than any prior phase. It dictates that everything that does not serve private interests has no value and must be destroyed.

The concept of ‘seven generation stewardship’ urges humanity to weigh all its decisions with an eye to the needs of people in 150 or so years. Instead, here in the UK, we have continual bursts of shock doctrine austerity wrecking the life chances of our children, our children’s children and our children’s children’s children ad infinitum: no libraries, no galleries, no social or economic security, no public transport, no trees. Our Government barely seems to think more than a day or two ahead, or to the next Daily Mail front page. According to this ultra-short-term, grab-what-you-can ideology, trees resemble people, indeed entire populations: they’re too expensive to maintain. Permanent austerity is therefore a response to environmental collapse, one which represents the priorities of elites far more articulately than any number of photos of David Cameron with huskies. It is a war against not only the very notion of public provision, but human existence itself.

Sheffield owes its development to the industrial revolution,  and the industrial revolution owes a lot to Sheffield. Its confluence of rivers and hills created boundless energy. A visit to Shepherd’s Wheel, Forge Dam or the Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet convinces you that such forces can be sustainable on a small scale, but once the wheel started turning the momentum was unstoppable. We created forces of which we quickly lost control. The driving force of capital accumulation demands acceleration far beyond anything the planet, our bodies and our mind can contain. Trees fall for the same reason our children can’t keep their eyes off our iPads. It’s a vapid conceit to kid ourselves that this mode of interacting with the world is more sustainable: it is produced and promoted by the same dynamic as that turning the Arctic into an oil field. We can have ipads and smartphones like the one I’m using to write this (made of plastic derived from oil and hand-manufactured by slaves in China); but no trees. We can have the internet, but we must in return wave goodbye to a stable climate. This is the faustian pact of unrestrained capitalist development. Culture, from music to books to art galleries, survives only as a medium for advertising and other forms of corporate promotion. All that is solid melts into air, and we end up paying for oxygen. As Karl Marx wrote, ‘Accumulation: This is Moses and the Prophets!’ – ones worshipped by politicians such as Michael Gove, who called the felling of trees in Sheffield ‘bonkers’ but who will search in vain for ways to stop it. Successive governments, at the service of private interests to whom his ideological devotion is total, have sacrificed democracy to corporate power. Despite Gove’s sentimental pretences, that ‘bank holiday from cynicism’ in the words of Oscar Wilde, he has no more respect for trees than he does for experts. This is a man who tried to abolish the teaching of climate change in schools. For those of his persuasion nothing, not even the planet, can stand in the way of the market. The fact that it is fixed in favour of corporations is by-the-by. Roberto Saviano was right to call the UK the most corrupt country in the world. He, a veteran of exposing the mafia at very great personal risk, knows la materia: globalised, financialised corruption covered up by legal omertà. Unlike those who stand in the way of organised crime in Palermo or Acapulco, the heroic protectors/protestors of Sheffield’s trees are threatened not with death (although the forces they are combatting are not averse to using violence) but with jail and/or destitution.

This is not a conspiracy theory. No single human being or secret committee is in charge of the global market. Abstract forces are increasingly convinced that they can keep growing only if they can dispense with human beings. They believe that they can survive without the physical world. Their barely human servants, from Gove down to the austerity-bound councillors who voted for privatisation, are just doing their bidding. Increasingly computers have become self-aware, making decisions for us without our even knowing it, unerringly following the guidelines programmed into them. Capitalism is thus an out-of-control driverless juggernaut,crashing down the street at full pelt, uprooting and destroying everything in its path, from democracy itself to ancient oaks and elms. There is no utility software which can resolve its malfunctions.

*I understand why desperate campaigners come up with such figures; personally I think that framing the issue in such terms is a mistake. Doing so capitulates to the priorities of the other side.

**I am by no means an expert on the tree issue, these people are.

***Or, to give her her full name, Ayn ‘Medicare‘ Rand

As long as Trump plays ignorant, his supporters will too

The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan came up with the concept of the ‘subject-supposed-to-know’, an impersonal and intangible entity which carries knowledge on our behalf. As I understand it, this relates to the conscience. When we feel morally guilty, what authority is it that knows we have done something wrong? For many, the answer is an omniscient god. Lacan’s insight is that we all in a sense believe in God whether we like it or not.

This raises two questions for me. In a heavily mediated society where even our most intimate thoughts and gestures are mediated back to us even while we think and act, could a mediating institution play such a role? Or perhaps a political tyrant, as George Orwell posited? Social media could well come to embody the two, in that so many of our experiences are thought of in terms of their value, evaluated as potential cultural capital, and also because the affordances it offers to directly repressive regimes are boundless.

The other thing that concerns me ( in fact I now see that the idea actually came from Slavoj Žižek) is what we can call the subject-supposed-not-to-know. For example, most of us have grown up in the light of terrifying facts regarding the climate which, were we to take them seriously, would compel us to transform every aspect of our lives*. Instead, we deal with the question as we do with death, pretending it’s not real and dealing with each instance of it as though it were occasional and incidental, with no implications for how we ourselves should think and act. There is clearly some sort of (as Lacan calls it) ‘Big Other’ that embodies and excuses our lack of awareness, an authority which, unlike us, is truly ignorant of the problem. Here we can see that these tools are particularly useful for understanding the role of mass and social media in our lives.

The other pressing instance of the subject-supposed-not-to-know is directly related to this: supporters of Donald Trump. In a way unerringly similar to that of a cult leader, Trump acts out their ignorance and thus allows them to continue with a kind of hysterical blindness. This is true not just of the climate, but also of his own behaviour. If we want to understand why they are so resistent to acknowledging his failings while so ready to blame others, this provides an answer. As long as he pretends that the allegations (including admissions he has himself made in the past) don’t exist, it’s as if they’re not real. He is aided in this by partisan media outlets and social media platforms which facilitate tunnel vision/amplify our blind spots and enable wilfull ignorance of that which their participants do not want to acknowledge. Trump’ s supporters embody an increasingly prevalent condition which affects us all, just in a more extreme form: they and we are effectively, as José Saramago pointed out, blind.

*The now-ubiquitous term ‘triggered’ (as in provoked) actually describes an effect of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. What else is this trauma which we’re so keen to avoid addressing that we displace our fear and stress onto substitute targets, eg race?

Forget the Paris Agreement. We need some new Nuremberg Trials.


Some old and ugly white people, not one of whom has any scientific credentials, all of whom despise their own children/grandchildren and none of whom possesses a soul, toast their success in ensuring the rapid elimination of the human species.

People have often laughed when I’ve argued that climate change denial should long have been treated as an imprisonable offence. You may also disagree with me; in my defence I ask you to consider what the…(people? No, that’s not the word) are celebrating in the above photo. The concerted efforts of a specific group of pseudo-scientist fraudsters and staggeringly corrupt media commentators to spread doubt, ignorance and confusion on behalf of corporate interests have ensured that if the human race is to survive more than a few decades, it will be in dire circumstances and with a vastly-reduced population. To any trolls wish to make light of that sentiment, I would point out that I am the father of an impossibly adorable nine-month-old baby and stress that I regard all of the people in the above photo as mass murderers of infinite future generations of human beings. (To anyone sent here from 4chan, I appreciate your desire to demonstrate your commitment to overturning all bastions of post-enlightenment wisdom and ridiculing liberal unease, but please go and play at defending pedophiles for the evening instead.)

I’ve sometimes been accused in the past of hyperbole when it comes to this topic, so I will make the following sentence as circumspect as I possibly can: Those who have dedicated time and energy to making action to prevent or mitigate climate change impossible are the enemies of the entire human species, guilty of plotting a genocide many times greater than those of Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot multiplied together. It is no accident whatsoever that their number includes a very high proportion of holocaust deniers. (Scratch a climate liar, find a nazi. Punch a climate liar in the face and film it, I’ll send you $60 by PayPal.) Displaced repressed fear of an overheating planet is what most fuels attempts to build a post-modern fourth reich. No climate denial conspiracy, no “President” Trump. You’re welcome to disagree with me on this, but only if you first agree it’s a very good point. (And if you didn’t know that Climate Change may well have been a major factor in the war in Syria, it might be because, like everyone alive including me, you don’t like to read stories involving the climate. Knowing about that does help explain why those who deny climate change hate refugees, and vice versa. As I said before, it’s no accident. Find me more than one climate liar who’s not a close associate of the far-right and I’ll buy you a copy of the book ‘Why I tell lies on behalf of oil companies’ by Piers Corbyn.)

One of the only remaining means by which human beings might wake up to the scale of the emergency which is upon us would be if the facilitators of ecological breakdown were to be brought to justice as publicly as possible. There is a precedent: the infrastructure of human rights came out of the realisation of the immortal horrors that mortal human beings were capable of. The creatures responsible were quite rightly eliminated from the face of the earth. How it might come about is a mystery, but it seems to me that the scale of the betrayal of the climate lying movement justifies a similar response. We need a Nuremberg-style trial for all those guilty of lying about the causes and consequences of the changing climate. Much as I know it would delight that group of pro-diluvuan misanthropes to hear someone say this, they are quite simply the worst scum who have ever existed, and humanity cannot start to address this trauma as long as they continue to be present on our planet. Cheers.

First they abandoned the Puerto Ricans

I once tried to watch a documentary about the political status of Puerto Ricans. With all its myriad details of unincorporation vs statehood vs self-determination, it was considerably less entertaining than ‘West Side Story’. Now, for more than three million people, such issues may be a matter of life and death.

Donald Trump doesn’t know much about Puerto Rico either. He’s been told that it’s an island, and sort-of foreign and sort-of not, but he also knows that the people there can’t vote. He’d really rather just tell people things are going great and go and play golf. It doesn’t matter to him what happens to the people there. It’s an island, for Christ’s sake. Trump wouldn’t have the capacity to help even if he wanted to. He just has no intrinsic motivation to care about people who can’t do anything for him in return. (EDIT: The US has brought back Trump’s five predecessors to coordinate the reconstruction, due to the fact that the current office-holder so obviously does not give a shit.)

Trump also has no impulse control. Since he became president, he’s spent more than two months on the golf course. Although (as I wrote shortly after the inauguration) he’s the kind of leader that the US has imposed on so many other countries, it’s not so much that (as some claim) he’s following an authoritarian playbook; he’s too stupid, arrogant and lazy to read. Instead he’s an instinctive tyrant, his instincts conditioned by the crudest imaginable form of Social Darwinism. The notion that life is all about competition is a suitable ideology for someone who’d already been awarded the gold medal before they’d even drawn their first breath. This is not story he tells himself, of course. He just knows he’s entitled to go and play golf whenever he feels like it. His ideology, then, is Neoliberalism at its most basic: the market works for me, so it must work for everyone else. More competition is always good, because I’m the guy who owns all the starting pistols and the finishing tape. Now kneel before me – or, rather, stay on your feet or I’ll use the starting pistol on you.

Now, such a person has an instinctive understanding of threat posed by climate change. To people like Trump, the idea that society might – indeed, must – become more cooperative is worse than the reality that our habitat is collapsing. As Naomi Klein has cogently argued over the last few years, capitalism (particularly in its turbocharged, scorched earth variety) is simply incompatible with the continued existence of our species.

Of course, it’s easy to blame our leaders for our plight. There’s also the question of our own responsibility. We, as a ‘civilisation’, long ago collectively decided to ignore the implications. That is, after all why Trump was elected: there’s nothing less real than reality TV, so one way to escape from a frightening reality was to elect a reality TV star, someone who plays the role of a tycoon for the cameras. Facebook, Twitter have happened along, not quite by chance, at just the right moment to enable us to screen out those aspects of reality that make us uncomfortable. It’s no accident that Trump once declared that “All I know is what’s on the internet“. While Obama was the first black president, Trump is the first internet one. (Not to mention the “first white president“.)

Puerto Rico is an instructive case. It’s not like parts of Bangladesh, Houston, or Miami, i.e. part of a larger territory into which our perception of its suffering can be subsumed. It’s isolated, so presents a very stark test case of whether or not we actually give a flying fuck about our future. If we don’t respond to calls like that of the Mayor of San Juan, and not just with donations but with political action, we are truly lost. Every city on earth will face similar existential crises,often part of bigger ones, like the coming wave of crop failures. The market – the rising price of food and energy, which some are lucky to be able to afford – will only protect us so far. Its not just that our current leaders will let us starve or drown, they will actively ignore our plight just as they denied the circumstances that made it inevitable. We have to recognise that what is happening in Puerto Rico is a climate catastrophe, part of a much larger and even deadlier global transformation, and act accordingly by making sacrifices on behalf of those already suffering and by getting rid of political leaders who refuse to even acknowledge the nature of the crisis. We must build local and international solidarity networks and demand that those we elect to govern our cities develop infrastructure to withstand the inevitable. If we don’t do these things, there will be no one left to speak up for us.

We can no longer ignore why hurricanes – and earthquakes – are getting stronger

Earthquake Strikes Mexico City

“You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.” Sven Lindqvist.

If you’re not Mexican and you’ve lived in Mexico City, you’ve probably lived or hung out in La Condesa, with its tree-lined avenues, pavement cafes and energetic night-time economy. My wife and I recently spent a wonderful year (May 2015-May 2016) living in a 3rd-floor apartment on the corner of Calle Campeche and Calle Cholula, above a branch of the taco chain Tizoncito. Having seen the destruction around Avenida Amsterdam, just a very pleasant three-minute stroll or two-minute jog away, I hope our former home is still standing and that everyone who was in the building is safe and sound.

I experienced three small earthquakes in my time in DF (the most common local name for the city). The first time I didn’t notice, or at least I saw belatedly on Twitter that there’d been an ‘#alertasismica’. I subsequently tried to find out if the public alarm system had actually worked, because I certainly hadn’t heard it. The second tremor apparently took place while I was in the metro one afternoon – I only heard about it in retrospect. The third one took place during our farewell party. As about 20 or so of us bounced round our ultimately oversized apartment at 3am, someone pointed out that the lampshade seemed to have joined in with the manic dancing. Sure enough, when we went to peer over the balcony, the staff and straggling customers of the taco joint were gathered in the street looking a bit chastened. Ah, chingale, we thought, and went straight back to ‘Born Slippy’. It turns out that we were immensely lucky.

By far the strongest and longest earthquake I’ve felt wasn’t actually in Mexico. It took place in Rome a few months after we’d left DF, on the eighth floor of the maternity hospital where my wife would just a few weeks later give birth to our first child. We were visiting a fellow couple and their brand new baby when the water in a plastic bottle began to shake, and then the building began to wobble. Everyone went quiet – I think that was one of the uncanny things about it. Outside, down in the street, some people were gathered in small groups and others were just getting on with their lives. It seemed to go on for several minutes but afterwards the sensation of physical distress and disorientation went on for more than a week. I immediately felt inspired to write this short piece of absurdist satire in an attempt to turn my fear into something…useful? Meaningful?

The stories I’ve read in the media and posted by friends in the last few hours are genuinely shocking. By no means do I want to make a disaster I didn’t even experience about me, but knowing those streets and recognising some of the buildings, not to mention worrying for the safety of friends who still live nearby, has been a sobering experience. There have also been reports of acts of immense courage. For all its manifold cracks and faults, I felt that Mexico City is a place in which those who share space look out for one another to a greater extent than in both London and Rome, especially given the relative absence of the State. Events like this, and those in Florida and the Caribbean over the last few weeks are not a good advert for cutting back on the provision of centrally-funded emergency services.

The courage that ordinary Mexicans display in continuing to make do in the midst of constant dangers, big and small, from disappeared daughters to bent traffic policemen, is immense. Partly by virtue of living in Condesa, we were sheltered from so many of the threats that chilangos take for granted. I hope that if I were still there I’d have the bravery and integrity to help out. It’s becoming clear now that, wherever we live, the rest of our lives now will both trigger our instincts of self-preservation and also necessitate acts of great selflessness. I pray that incidents like Brexit and the election of Trump are not conclusive evidence that the two are mutually opposed.

Although I’d be hard-pressed to compare it to dragging people put of broken buildings, it did take something like courage to investigate something I’d purposefully been avoiding: the relationship between earthquakes and the changing climate. This article, by the highly-respected academic Bill McGuire, sets out the link. It turns out that as the planet heats up (and particularly as deeply-compacted ice melts, and hurricanes hammer at the surface), the earth shifts. (Incidentally, if you haven’t read the article, which was published in an eminently reputable publication and summarises the results of some very extensive research which took place over several decades and was subject, like all significant academic research, to extensive and rigorous peer-review based on the systematic application of doubt, please do not comment below.)

It’s immensely difficult to talk about climate change. We’re neither evolutionarily equipped nor socially encouraged to take it seriously. The most powerful forces on the planet employ endless legions of trolls to shout down any discussion of its causes and effects, often in the name of (ahem) “free speech”*. Republican and Conservative politicians insist that it’s never the right time to address planetary overheating, particularly at those moments when its consequences are most visible and stark. Anywhere I post this online there will immediately attract those who, without having digested or even nibbled at its contents, will insist on screaming with spluttering toddler-like outrage that someone has had the temerity to try to feed them the C-words. Their campaign of intimidation around an almost impossibly intimidating subject has made climate change into a taboo, a heresy.

Now, in 2017, everyone – particularly politicians and journalists – who talks about hurricanes without mentioning the changing climate is being cowardly and dishonest. We also owe it to each other, and to the new generation, the one which, absolutely blameless, is already here, to face up to the fact that our failure to even discuss the dangers before us has much deeper consequences than we blithely assumed. An essential step is to get rid, by any means necessary, of those ‘leaders’ who, by means of scapegoating and by encouraging inane conspiracy theories, deny reality on our behalf. They are the sort of people who should have hurricanes named after them: #HurricaneRickScott or #HurricaneScottPruit may have had more useful political impact than #HurricaneIrma. Perhaps, given his government’s stated intention to throw limitless amounts of fossil fuel onto the fire, this particular disaster should go by the name of Enrique Peña-Nieto.

* Such people specialise in belittling the suffering of anyone with darker skin, so climate change is an ideal topic for their trolling.

No one deserves to lose their home to a hurricane. Well, almost no one.

The question of whether or not it’s acceptable to use violence to stop fascism was resolved to the satisfaction of pretty much the entire human race in the middle of last century. Few in the late 1940s would have had much respect for the notion that genocide is merely a expression of the right to free speech. But if, as Patrick Mcgrath argued cogently this week, fascism is a monster which keeps growing new heads, then each one that emerges needs to be crushed with maximum force – or, as the finale of Psychoville spectacularly demonstrated, exploded.

Many of those fleeing hurricanes in Florida and Texas over the last week will inevitably have more awareness of and engagement with the problem of the changing climate than the writer of this blog. Others will, like me, be aware of the basic facts and share in the generalised but rarely-acknowledged terror at what a righteously vengeful planet next has in store. But there are inevitably many of those currently witnessing the destruction of all they hold dear who have actively dedicated much of their time and energy over the last couple of decades abusing mass and digital communication media to spread disinformation with a view to ensuring that such catastrophes would both take place and be wholly unprepared for by states with the duty and means to protect their subject populations. Many of them will even have lent their support to corrupt and venal political demagogues who have built their careers and fortunes on the spreading of staggeringly irresponsible lies  which deny the present and future suffering of millions of fellow human beings.

Many of those victims happen to be poor, dark-skinned and far away. It’s by no means an accident that the kind of scum who marched straight from 4chan to Charlottesville a few weeks ago divide their online time fairly equally between scapegoating and ridiculing foreigners, threatening and bullying women who dare to speak freely and attempting to disrupt every single online conversation about how scientific findings account for extreme weather events. Climate denial is a key component of 21st century fascism, the formal and explicit imposition of elite power through violence. (Hurricanes are extremely violent events – no wonder the manchild Trump appears to revel in their power.) Just as when those who seek to gain power by means of violence are pushed back by any means necessary, when people who have inflated their egos, boosted their careers and augmented their Paypal balances by denying the experiences of climate refugees themselves become climate refugees, who can spare them any sympathy? Of all the tragedies to be visited on the US over these few weeks, maybe the greatest, or at least the most ironic, is that Hurricane Irma appears to be steering clear of Mar-a-lago. While some may be #prayingfortexas or #holdinghandsforflorida, I’m hoping that the next extreme weather event brings in its wake a tsumani of divine justice. In the meantime, perhaps a more appropriate nickname for a hurricane ripping apart the south-west corner of the United States would be simply #RickScott.

Tourism goes on as normal in Italy despite crippling drought

From the window of our Airbnb studio, we can see the wifi barge stationed down in the bay. There are apparently three such boats which arrive daily at different parts of the island and keep locals and visitors supplied with a continuous flow of pumped-in digital information.

It’s an emergency measure. According to Domenico, our host, there’s been no actual coverage for three months. I think he talked about the astronomical sum of 500,000 tonnes a year being consumed, peaking obviously in the summer, when the population of the island multiplies exponentially.

Tourists use huge amounts of wifi: to post and comment on photos on Facebook, access restaurant reviews on Tripadvisor and listen to listen to appropriately summery music on Spotify. That’s true not just for this island but for Capri, Ischia and countless other holiday destinations, which given how important tourism is to the Italian economy makes this nationwide drought of coverage particularly worrying. Luckily, in our case, Domenico has left a two-litre bottle of wifi in the fridge, and after its used up we resort to using our own supply, which we stock up on in the local shops.

Life seems to go on. Boats arrive, restaurants and cafes are busy, and everything seems more or less normal. But it’s hard to see how this set-up can be sustained. We depend on wifi in every single area of our lives, from transport to air conditioning systems to entertainment. Only the most adventurous of tourists would even dream of spending time in a place which survives on a life-support system. And as for the locals, they must be noticing the year-on-year decline in coverage, and wondering what the future has in store for their stunningly picturesque but informatically parched island. Could seawater somehow be transformed into Cloud-borne ones and zeros of a standard acceptable to international guests? What value does its abundance of natural beauty have if visitors can’t upload photos of it on Instagram? Could the recent dearth in coverage somehow be related to rumoured changes in the earth’s climate? If only they could get online consistently, they might be able to find the answers to these and other pressing questions. In the meantime, ensuring that tourists continue to have access to decent quality Netflix streaming services and more-than-sporadic Whatsapp voice and video calls conveying birthday greetings remains the number one municipal priority.

Waiting for impeachment is cowardice. Someone needs to act.

In how many Hollywood movies does a single individual sacrifice their life to save the world? Whether it’s Bruce Willis or some other aging but rugged hero, in death-embracing acts of individual self-martyrdom the protaganist beats both the ticking clock and the normal limits of human endurance in order to protect humanity from some (always externally-derived) threat. In the process the manifest destiny of the USA is reaffirmed, and all other citizens of the world, shown gathered in sports bars looking up anxiously at garbling and visibly perspiring news presenters, warming themselves around some squalid but spiritually-enriching campfire in the desert, or huddled in their third-world hovels around radios as they come to understand despite their obvious lack of education and pitiful absence of material means that once again thanks to the omnipotence and benevolence of the world’s only superpower the existential threat to our world has been averted.

Can the world wait for the criminally insane occupant of the Oval Office to be ‘impeached’? Should we cross our fingers and hope that somehow, one not too far-off day, through the time-honoured workings of the USA’s venerable democratic institutions as defined in its vaunted Constution, the balance shall be restored? I would say not. We’re beyond that point. Instead, some courageous and principled American citizen needs to act, some valient man or woman brought up saluting the Stars and Stripes and believing fervently in the shining ideals of democracy, justice and freedom, patriotically adept at handling a range of US-made firearms, must step up to the plate and prepare themselves to launch an almighty strike in response to the pitch that fate and history has thrown them, thus redeeming the American Project and saving the world once again, just like in the movies.