My hyper-conscious brain woke me up at 6am because it was excited to get back to writing. This medium, it turns out, is strangely liberating (as long as you can remain anonymous). In my freezing kitchen (no heating), making coffee, thoughts scattering and scrambling for dear life, it crossed my mind, actually that is a misnomer, because thoughts don’t cross minds, they materialize like bubbles in a swamp, they flicker like fireflies flitting around in the darkness.
Where was I? The kitchen, yes. The new day, the same day, the eternally recurring day, starting out, afresh, on a sounder footing, emotionally, in flip-flops, physically. When it came to me that I miss the 19th century. Obviously not the satanic mills and outrageous moustaches and rigid social hierarchy. And then, logically, I got to thinking (my dear language, you are a veritable flea circus of illusion!) that I miss the 20th century. Obviously not the genocides and the death camps and the ideological idiocy. What then?
Today is the US election. The whole world will watch it as it happens. The airwaves will be crackling with it. The internet will report on it moment by moment, minute by minute, generating enough words to form a double rung ladder to the moon.
I think I woke up too early in my excitement to write. Momentum slowing down… Thick, steamy, 19th-century sighs escaping me… Sturdy, wordy, 20th-century ideas crumbling… It’s the 21st century, inevitably, relentlessly. Except I want no part of it. It is ugly and base. Glib and flip. It outsources its misery, dissembles its iniquities through choice and lifestyle (ugh), fuels itself on industrial-scale illusion.
The 19th century was a battleground of ideas all of which had the aim, no matter how naïve or misguided, of creating a better world. The latter half of the 20th century, having experiencing the most apocalyptic horror in history (the doomed logic of history ultimately brought it about), was for many in the west a golden age of social mobility, economic stability, and consensus politics. The 21st century, in turn, has given us the selfie, Facebook, Instagram. It feels like no one is in charge (except the highly efficient security services). It feels like there is no plan (except business as usual). It feels like political rhetoric has deteriorated to the point of pure vapidity.
Until recently, the political pendulum swung left, right, left. It was like a reassuring grandfather clock in its oscillations. Right, left, right. Progress was gradual and incremental. Where progress meant lowering inequality, raising living standards, working towards a leisure and not work-based future. That grandfather clock has now gone into reverse, its hands are madly flailing backwards, towards the demagoguery of the 1930s, towards the schismatic social inequality of the 19th century.
The Guardian has this to say of US presidential candidate Trump in its election-day editorial: “[…] Mr Trump is not a fit and proper person for the presidency. He is an irascible egomaniac. He is uninterested in the world. He has fought a campaign of abuse and nastiness, riddled with racism and misogyny. He offers slogans, not a programme. He propagates lies, ignorance and prejudice. He brings no sensibility to the contest except boundless self-admiration. He panders to everything that is worst in human nature and spurns all that is best.”
Have stronger words ever been written about a presidential candidate? I doubt it. But Trump is not a freak phenomenon. As the (admirably) indefatigably indignant George Monbiot wrote in The Guardian, Trump “is the distillation of all that we have been induced to desire and admire. Trump is so repulsive not because he offends our civilisation’s most basic values, but because he embodies them.”
In the course of approximately two decades, my father went from being an ardent Marxist to a zealous free market ideologue. The secret behind this antithetical metamorphosis lies entirely in its zealousness. I wrote to my father a few days ago to ask if he would vote for Donald Trump if he were a US citizen. His reply came as no surprise. He said that, yes, he would vote for Trump, except there would be no point because the election will be rigged against him.
My father is a very old man and I cannot begrudge him his doddery fanaticism. He will not live to see the horror to come. He enjoyed a lifetime of comfortable zealousness (albeit shuffling from left to right during the course of his fitful life) because he was lucky enough to live through a time that afforded him that luxury. I don’t want to be alarmist but this time – here, now – is perilously close to the precipice. I am scared. As a zealous student of history, I have good reason to be.
Left, right, left. The madness marches on. Toting slogans, spouting platitudes, routing any obstacles in its path. Baudelaire, that quintessential 19th-century poet, wrote: “This life is a hospital where every patient is possessed with the desire to change beds.” I used to love that line except now I feel like we should change the whole damned hospital. Life is not a right. Happiness is not an entitlement. Angry demagogues are not an accident. We still have the power to change things for the better – I believe that. But will we ever find a common cause to rally behind beyond injured pride and wounded vanity?