We don’t like guns because we like guns. But we DO like guns. Gun manufacturers don’t make $billions every year selling guns to farmers or even armies. The AR-15, America’s bestselling gun, is a sexy-as-hell consumer item. Like a lethal steel iPhone but significantly less useful.
I appreciate the vocal efforts of Hollywood A-listers campaigning for better gun laws. But it won’t mean much as long as Hollywood keeps churning out the high production value advertisements for firearms it calls “action movies”. Matt Damon wants you to do as he says when he says ban guns, not do as he does in a career based on shooting guns while looking super cool.
And super empowered.
I went on a mini-rant about guns-as-power-symbols over at my friend Ahimsa Kerp’s blog.
“Most guns, and basically all swords, only exist to kill people. Only a psychopath believes that killing people makes the killer powerful. And yet in stories we present guns and swords as symbols of personal empowerment, that heroes use to fight their way to self-realization. This is so pervasive, most people actually believe it. Imagine if we stopped using guns and swords as this symbol, and started using books instead? That would be closer to reality.”
I hate to break it to the middle aged dad-bods out there, but none of you will ever fight your way up 80 storeys of Nakatomi tower while shooting baddies to rescue your wife from Alan Rickman and save your marriage. You are, literally, 82 million times more likely to save your marriage by reading insightful books than by buying a Desert Eagle .45
And yet, from 24 to Taken, we watch the strange modern day ceremony of average middle aged men shooting their way to personal empowerment. And it’s not just the dudes. You can barely walk into a cinema or switch on a tv today without finding somebody liberating their inner agency by blowing somebody elses head off with a gun.
You could make this symbol ANYTHING. If our media churned out thousands of hours of entertainment a year in which average dudes found personal empowerment through the symbolic device of a monkey wrench, then average dudes all over America would manifest a fetisistic relationship to wrenches. They might even go around hitting people with their wrenches, but with a thankfully lower death toll than today’s sickening gun massacres.
People are impressionable. In the 1920s, an entire generation of women were persuaded that cigarettes, of all things, were symbols of personal empowerment, through a cleverly orchestarted marketing campaign arranged by Edward Bernays, father of “public relations” IE legitimised propoganda.
I doubt any Hollywood movie makers will see this blog post (but share it widely to increase the chances). However, you’ve heard the message here, and the chances are, you’re a storyteller. YOU can help change this situation, by using your gifts to NOT replicate the lazy, lethal story archetypes, that lead us to see the gun as a heroic symbol, rather than WHAT IT REALLY IS – a nauseating symptom of deep social sickness.
We live in strange political times. Around the world far right leaders are adopting traditionaly socialist policies to get elected. Trump promised huge public spending on infrastructure. Le Pen is promising a huge rise in social benefits. What’s going on?
The bottom line is, working and middle class people in America and Europe are poorer than they once were. So much poorer that we are falling into the conditions of developing nations. Wealth is capitalising in the hands of the very rich. Ordinary people can no longer afford college, to own a house, or access proper healthcare. The far right can see this, and are exploiting the fear it’s creating.
In the UK we have one political leader who is offering hope instead of fear. Jeremy Corbyn is similar in politics to Bernie Sanders in the US. A traditional, centre left, democratic socialist. His political offer is similar to the existing policies in the Nordic nations or Germany, all much more equal and fairer societies. But in the UK, that makes him look like a far left radical.
Like Sanders, Corbyn has faced bitter opposition both from conservatives, and the liberal wing of his own party. The liberal agenda doesn’t address poverty effectively, and opposes the policies, like tax rises, needed to tackle it. So a leader like Corbyn faces intense opposition from people who are, theoratically at least, on his side, making his position look much weaker than it really is.
Unlike Sanders, Corbyn succeeded in becoming leader of Britain’s major left wing party. And now with the calling of a snap election by the Tory party, Corbyn has a shot at putting Labour in power. We’re being told that Corbyn absolutely can not win. But we’re being told this by a media entirely owned by conservative and liberal interests, who aren’t presenting a fair picture. In fact, Corbyn has a good chance. Here’s why.
Because of the high expectation of a Tory landslide victory, Corbyn can win simply by holding the ground that Labour currently control. If the Tories don’t gain significantly at this point, it will be seen as a rejection of their destructive stance on Brexit and their austerity policies. And winning is much more difficult for the Tory party than the polls reflect.
To win a large majority, conservaties need to win a raft of small towns surrounding cities like Leicester, Shefield and Manchester in the midlands and north of the UK. These places, which have suffered worst from growing poverty, have protested by voting for UKIP and Brexit. Pollsters are giving the Tories a major advantage on the assumption that UKIP / Brexit votes will translate to Tory votes. This assumption is almost certainly false. Corbyn and Labour are much more likely to hold all these seats, maintaining the status quo, than polls suggest.
In the south the Tory party face a huge resurgent threat from the Liberal Democrats. The south east in particular has been tipping from conservative to liberal for the last 30 years, with constuencies like Guildford flipping yellow to LibDem. Factor in Brexit, which the south east voted against, and there’s a strong possibility the Tories will lose significant seats to the LibDems in this election.
If Labour holds in the midlands and the north, and the LibDems win significant seats in the south east, then the Tories lose their majority and we are into a situation of coalition government. Corbyn would almost certainly emerge as leader of any coalition government in those circumstances. Even if he didn’t, this outcome would shatter the current Tory leadership.
Add to this, that only four days into the election campaign, Labour and Corbyn have halved the Tory poll lead. How? Corbyn’s team have been planning for a snap election. They have a raft of policies ready to go, like the end of college tuition fees, and raising taxes on earners over £70k. These policies offer hope of a fairer and more equal society to millions of Britons who have been crushed into poverty by both conservative and liberal policies over the last 40 years.
The real question on which this election turns is this. Will the people of Britain see and vote for the economic justice in the policies Corbyn and Labour are offering? If so, you can expect your next PM to be Jeremy Corbyn. If not, it will be Theresa May. But as poverty and inequality grows even starker, you will eventually see a far right leader exploit that anger to sweep to power in the UK. And that will truly be a dark day.
One of the major barriers to a Corbyn win, is the perception that Corbyn can’t win. If you agree with this post, please share it on social media. Follow me on Twitter @damiengwalter
Trump voters. Brexit voters. The AltRight. The people who read Infowars, and Breitbart, and the Daily Mail. They’re all early stage socialists, who just haven’t figured out that’s what they are yet.
For most of the 20th century, global capitalism was a pretty good deal. If you were a white western citizen.
Most of the stuff you bought was manufactured by low paid labour in Asia. Most of the drudge work was done, either at home by women, or by immigrants. Life kept geting cheaper, and you kept earning more, assuming you were a white male, even in a relatively low paying job. Global capitalism, clearly an unfair system that exploited millions of people, was widely supported by white Americans, because they benefited from that exploitation.
“As a citizen of a western nation you are now much more likely to be exploited by capitalism.”
My how things have changed! Not. But, if you’re a highly priviledged citizen of the US or Europe, you can see that they are changing. Asia and other less developed areas are quickly catching up with the West. Women play on a more equal footing, and the immigrants who came to work in developed nations are now citizens, demanding and fully deserving equality. People aren’t stupid. Especially when it comes to protecting their own social status. Those who benefited from these inequalities can see those benefits slipping away.
Capitalism remains a deeply unfair and unequal way to organise the global economy. But in one regard it has become fairer. As a citizen of a western nation you are now much more likely to be exploited by capitalism. Capitalism has become trully global. Corporations, banks, hedge funds and billionaires move freely around the world. They are equal opportunities exploiters, as happy to profit from low paid labour in England as in China.
And the benefits of capitalism have also moved around. New middle classes in Asia, South America and Africa are being given the deal that the US and Europe got before them. Capitalism now has many new fans and supporters, in places like China that previously tried to get rid of it. But back where it began, in the US and UK, a lot of people are furious with global capitalism, and the “neo-liberal” agenda that today drives it.
Right now, what the people of the US and UK are demanding is a return to the capitalist deal of 40 years ago. They want jobs brought back from Asia, immigrants sent back beyond their borders, and women back under the thumb. That’s the agenda that got Trump elected, that leads to Britain voting to exit the EU, and is powering audiences for sites like Breitbart. The winners of capitalism can see they’re at risk of being made the losers, and they’re terrified by the prospect.
I don’t think it takes a genius to realise that global capitalism isn’t going to roll back 40 years because some old people in Idaho and Bolton are unhappy about it. And I think anybody with half an eye on the future can see that new technologies and automation are going to make the capitalist deal much, much more unequal.
So what happens when Trump and Brexit fail to deliver a temporal shift back to 1957? This is one of the last campaign advertisements run by Donald Trump before his election as president.
Anyone familiar with socialism will recognise the message of the Trump ad as a radically socialist one. Trump is no socialist, but he was willing to say anything to win. And Steve Bannon of Breitbart, alongside other altright political sites like Infowars, had devised a winning formula. Nationalist yes. Dog whistle racism yes. But also radically socialist, for a huge audience of Americans in the very early stages of questioning capitalism.
In the UK much the same trick was played. Brits were told that £350 million a week would be taken back from the EU and spent on the National Health Service. This lie was believed by many because, for at least 30 years, the British tabloid media has been equating the EU with global capitalism, via the issue of immigration. There’s a deep irony here of course, because the EU actually acts as a bulwark against the worst excesses of capitalism.
“In 5 years or so, the vast majority of Trump voters will be calling for nationalised healthcare, tax hikes on the rich, and free college tuition.”
In the US and UK a huge section of the population, who previously voted to support the free market capitalism of Reagan and Thatcher, are for the first time in their lives questioning that capitalist model. In the short term that’s pushed them towards nationalism, protectionism and racism. But regressing to racist political ideals will only hurt the economies of the UK and the US more deeply. And as that pain kicks in, those people are arriving at exactly the same socialist ideas that exploited people all over the world have been arguing since Karl Marx – socialism.
Socialism is a dialectic. Robbed of their faith in capitalism, Trumpists, Brexiteers, Breitbarters and AltRighters are now at stage 1 of the socialist learning process. That’s why so much of what they say sounds like communist revolutionaries shouting “down with the elite”. But as they learn, they’re going to arrive at the same democratic socialist ideas that were squeezed out of US politics decades ago. In 5 years or so, the vast majority of Trump voters will be calling for nationalised healthcare, tax hikes on the rich, and free college tuition. Because these socialist ideas are neccesary to balance a modern economy. Even Trump voters are on track to realise they are socialists, whether they know it now or not.
Why does this matter? Because the political left just lost its best electoral opportunity in decades. A huge swathe of the voting public are looking for answers to failed capitalism. But the left offered the same compromise position that brought it victory in the 2000’s. The left lost because it refused to argue for its own ideals, and stood watching as the right wing stole it’s ground. We can’t afford to make the same mistake again.
This post is my answer to the political battles of the last 12 months. To Brexit, to Trump, to the resurgent racist #AltRight, and most of all to a kind of conservatism that I do not see as an enemy, but which seems to see me as one. But it doesn’t quite begin there.
I’m a writer, and the essay is one of my favourite forms. I love storytelling the most, but there’s also a need in this world to speak plainly about what we think. My best essay to date was published three years ago by Aeon magazine. Entitled “Sparks Will Fly”, it was an essay about what I call “Creator Culture”, the idea that technology and social progress are making all of us, instead of passive consumers, active creators.
That essay was brought back to my mind this week with the publication of a new and rather fine audio edition. Listening to this new narration, I realised that my essay of a few years ago had already answered, in part, the political realities I find myself chewing over today.
I write to understand. I write because, until I go through the disciplined process of composing disparate ideas into a coherent argument, I don’t truly know what my position is. Through the summer of Brexit and Trump I thought through a number of written responses. Most weren’t trying to understand. They were a call to arms. A fight-them-on-the beaches rhetoric, certainly a feeling many liberals hold today. But I don’t think fighting conservatism is ever the answer. Instead, we need to out create it.
Conservatism is not a creative ideology. It relies, always, for growth and new energy, on liberalism. Five centuries ago, not torturing people to death was the new liberal idea on the block, along with the Earth not being flat. Conservatives were outraged. They always are. But deep down conservatives know they are always doomed to lose, because the the only true alternative to growth and change, is stasis and death.
“the strains on our social order created by high speed progress are the core of 2016’s many political conundrums”
In political terms 2016 grew out of two problems. The less serious, but more dramatic, is the huge new influence of crazed demagogues in our political system. Nigel Farage and Brexit, Donald Trump, Steve Bannon’s Breitbart, the various petty agitators conglomerated as the #AltRight, and their early cultural indicators like Gamergate and the Sad Puppies, are all the same problem. Social media empowers demagogues, and the left has a few of its own to admit to (Michael Moore, Oliver Stone and Adam Curtis, I’m looking at you…and anyone on the left who repeats the junk they put out without questioning it.)
But these demagogues are exploiting a deeper and far more serious problem, of which they are only one of many symptoms. It’s an age old social conflict, from which many of humankind’s greatest achievements, and worst failures, have sprung. We’ve had these same arguments at every stage of social growth, from the transition from hunter-gatherer to agrarian society, to the emergence of industrialism, capitalism and of course communism. Today this struggle is out of control, and causing serious problems.
On one had we have the forces of social progress, most often championed in Liberalism. On the other hand we have the forces of social cohesion, represented in bulk by Conservatism. I choose to call the goal of conservatives “cohesion” because I think it’s important, actually essential, to acknowledge that the basic aim of conservatives – a stable social order – is not in and of itself a bad thing. And that the strains on our social order created by high speed progress are at the core of 2016’s many political conundrums.
What are people really saying when they talk about wanting manufacturing jobs back? Well, in large part they just a want a stable work life, that allows time with their family and friends. Instead, increasingly, we have debt fuelled lives, insecure jobs with crazy work hours, and crumbling family relationships. I’m sure everyone recognises that new reality, and feels a little grief at least for the losses. Nearly all of us can react in deeply conservative ways, when change places our basic happiness at risk.
“For decades, technology and globalization have made us more productive and connected. This has created many benefits, but for a lot of people it has also made life more challenging. This has contributed to a greater sense of division than I have felt in my lifetime. We need to find a way to change the game so it works for everyone.” Mark Zuckerberg
The balance between liberal progressive ideals, and conservative calls for social stability, must be a constant negotiation. Neither position is right, they are forces that must be forever balanced and rebalanced. That negotiation has, in recent decades, collapsed into polarised, partisan name calling, around increasingly illogical positions on both left and right. This failure allows the worst aspects of both sides, the demagogues, racists, regressives, bigots and outright criminals, to flourish.
Fighting conservatives won’t re-establish that negotiation. And, let’s be honest here, liberal progress is not achieved through conflict. Activism, of course, plays a part. But it has never been the primary tool of social progress, because it so eaily becomse self-defeating, unleashing exactly the forces of anger and hopelessness that liberal progress must stand against. Instead, liberal progress has a much more powerful tool.
We create the future we want to live in, then we invite others to come and live there with us.
The great stride forwards in progress between 1950 – 2000 weren’t the product of a fight. Millions of creative people, entrepreneurs, artists, technologists, writers, academics, executives, politicans and many more, just went ahead and CREATED a more interesting world, and the vast majority of people decided they would rather live in it. There was no single vote, no great battle, no president or CEO decided this. It evolved, and the engine of that evolution was creativity.
If you genuinely want to argue that the world of 1950 was a better place, you won’t get a serious answer from me. The world of post 2000 is riddled with problems. But a return to the past is an answer to none of them. Both the political right and left have fallen into a lazy disdain for modern society. Mindless hatred of state spending on one side is matched by mindless hatred of corporate innovation on the other. Again, these are forces to be balanced through negotiation, not absolutes to be won by force.
All of which is really a preamble to my simple point. Many of my very good liberal friends are preparing metaphorical (and perhaps a few literal) baseball bats, to combat the conservative enemy. A level of muscular resistance is useful. But. Please, please, please. Do not let your anger steal away your true power, which is and always has been your creativity. We can create a better world, but we can only fight our way to a worse one.
We may want to fight conservatives, but we don’t have to. Real victory will come from continuing to create a better world, for everybody, especially those who struggle most to see what we can all create together.
I like this story in The Independent about China’s plans for a social scoring system.
In this world, anything from defaulting on a loan to criticising the ruling party, from running a red light to failing to care for your parents properly, could cause you to lose points. And in this world, your score becomes the ultimate truth of who you are – determining whether you can borrow money, get your children into the best schools or travel abroad; whether you get a room in a fancy hotel, a seat in a top restaurant – or even just get a date.
I also love the implicit suggestion that we don’t already live in a world where a point scoring system determines whether you can get a seat at a restaurant or *gasp* a date. It’s called money, we’ve had it for a few thousand years, and the only people who don’t think about it much are the people who have it.
One of the things about being 1) a writer and 2) a digital nomad, is that I meet a fair few people who have a lot of money. Swiss bank account type money. People whose whole life is spent jetting from one yoga retreat to another. Once you reach the point where you don’t have to think about money, it simply becomes a way of…keeping score. Because that’s all money is, the point scoring system in the weird Game of Life that is modern society.
What is interesting about the Chinese plan, is how very closely it mirrors exactly what is happening already in the online world. We’re already in the mid-phase of replacing money with a new scoring system that’s better adapted to digital life. How many Twitter followers do you have? What’s your business’s score on TripAdvisor? What’s your products star rating on Amazon? And on and on. The internet is made of point scoring systems, of more or less relative value.
A lot of people are upset about Vine closing. The 6 second video sharing app had some dedicated users. Can’t they just share videos elsewhere? Sure. But imagine you had $10,000 in the bank, then the bank just closed. That’s what just happened to Vine users. A big Vine following had a value, and that value just got deleted. Social networks and internet life aren’t just fun and games at this point. The time you spend garnering attention online is an investment. Invest in the wrong things, your time will be wasted.
If this all seems kind of far fetched, perhaps you haven’t being paying attention to what’s happening in our economy now. Consider this thought experiment. Imagine everything in the world is free. Food, cars, holidays, healthcare. All of it, everything you could possibly want, free. In that world, what still has value? It’s the thing that every big brand, every media company, and every kid on YouTube today are all fighting for. Your attention.
The attention economy has been one of those ideas kicking around since the early days of the internet. And now, along with machine learning and self-driving cars, it seems like it’s actually taking form. But I wouldn’t get too excited about it’s utopian possibilities. I very much doubt that extreme poverty will be a major feature of the world a few decades from now. But the kind of micro-managed behavioral shaping emerging in China very much will be. Do you enjoy playing games? Because our emerging future is going to look and feel much like a huge game. With no end. And no way to stop playing.
The Alt-right will do anything to outrage the liberal internet, knowing that outrage helps build their growing army of overwhelming white, male, and very geeky, supporters.
Star Trek gave television audiences their first interracial kiss in 1968, and Gene Roddenberry’s vision of mankind’s future continued to champion progressive ideas for many decades. Today “geek culture” is more diverse than ever, reflecting audiences’ hunger for a better world where the Ghostbusters can be women, and even Ms Marvel can be Muslim.