- 22 Jan 20
Or at least that’s the contention of a growing number of commentators, in the context of the far-right’s international rise and the threat of global environmental disaster. Paul Nolan analyses the past decade in politics to discover how we ended up at this point, and asks: where can we locate some badly needed hope as we enter the next decade?
Sometime early in 2010, I read an article about the latest project from film director David Fincher, renowned at the time for his work on the dark thrillers Seven and Zodiac, as well as the subversive, zeitgeist-defining, fin de siècle masterwork, Fight Club.
His next film, due in the autumn of that year, was to explore the origins of Facebook, with a particular focus on Mark Zuckerberg’s legal battles with fellow Harvard students Divya Narendra, and twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (memorably dubbed “the Winklevi” in the film), over who first came up with the idea for the site.
As well as my excitement about the movie, I remember thinking at the time that I should probably check out Facebook and see what all the fuss was about. I’d never signed up and it seemed like an opportune moment.
Having seen the film that October at Cineworld on Parnell Street, I felt that Fincher had pulled off another monumental achievement similar to Fight Club: an unbelievably stylish movie that told us so much about the cultural moment we were living through.
As was to be expected from a blackly cynical Gen X-er like Fincher, the film had a grim prognosis: the suggestion that, try as we might, the darker elements of human nature would ultimately worm their way into the new phenomenon of social media.
Around six weeks later, a group of us at a work do in the centre of Dublin stepped outside into the falling snow – Ireland experiencing its second cold snap in 12 months – for a cigarette. Talk soon turned to the big development of the week: with the country on the verge of bankruptcy, the IMF had arrived in town to take control of the national finances.
A very wise man – Jacobean dramatist John Webster, Google informs me – once wrote: “We are merely the stars’ tennis balls, struck and bandied which way please them.” I didn’t realise it at the time, but that period had revealed to us arguably the two defining themes of the decade: social media and the global recession.
Irish politics in the final months of 2010 descended to the level of low farce. In September, a worse-for-wear sounding Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, appeared on RTE Radio One’s Morning Ireland to discuss the country’s deteriorating financial situation. A national controversy soon erupted over whether Cowen was hungover from the revelries at the previous night’s Fianna Fail Ard Fheis, or whether – as Cowen insisted – he simply had a head cold.
With government ministers Dermot Ahern and Noel Dempsey having insisted that rumours of IMF intervention were bogus, representatives from that very organisation were on our shores within weeks. The final straw came when Cowen attempted a cabinet reshuffle without consulting FF’s junior coalition partner, the Greens, who duly pulled the plug and called an election for the new year.
In keeping with the tenor of the times, the Greens’ Paul Gogarty – who the previous year had responded to a parliamentary contribution from Labour’s Emmet Stagg with a simple “Fuck you” – answered questions at the press conference with a child on his lap.
As was widely predicted, the 2011 general election was a virtual extinction level event for Fianna Fail, as the electorate decisively returned a Fine Gael/Labour coalition and austerity budgets became the norm. It has to be said that the troika of the IMF, EU and ICB weren’t especially big on the idea of European unity in our hour of greatest need: we would pay our debts, while bondholders and other financial bigwigs escaped with minimal exposure. The injustice was utterly galling.
For the beleaguered Irish public, the final straw proved to be a mooted increase in water charges, a shamelessly extortionate move on the government’s behalf.
In the UK, though, a large section of the public were of a mood to give the political establishment something more than a bloody nose. Indeed, quite a lot of people had something closer to a mortal blow in mind.
Those of us who grew up in the ’90s were used to a managerial, technocratic style of politician. George H.W. Bush, John Major, John Bruton – it was all grey hair and greyer suits. Steady as she goes, and let’s not rock the boat too much domestically or internationally.
Major was bedevilled by the European question, as were his predecessors as far back as the late ’70s. Still clinging onto the fading idea of the British Empire, the Eton-educated Eurosceptics could never quite stomach the idea of Eurocrats dictating policy and law to dear old Blighty
As 2016 would decisively – and painfully – prove, politics was now attracting some of the most extreme people in society. In addition, there were all sorts of other elements just waiting to ignite this particular powderkeg. Though not quite causing carnage on the same scale as in Ireland, the recession had still taken its toll on the UK. Understandably, many were fed up with being promised an economic tomorrow that never arrived.
Meanwhile, one of many grim consequences of Bush and Blair’s hopelessly ill-judged war in Iraq was the ISIS insurgency, which had contributed to a refugee crisis in Europe as people in the Middle East fled war and bloodshed. Undoubtedly, there would be those in Nigel Farage’s UKIP and others on the British far-right only too happy to invoke racist rhetoric, as they sought to demonise migrants and wrongfully paint them as the source of the UK’s economic woes.
It was in this climate that David Cameron – high on the success of achieving single party government in 2015 – confirmed there would be a Brexit referendum in June of the following year. To describe it as a high stakes strategy would be an understatement. In Cameron’s defence, victory would have given moderate Tories a powerful weapon with which to mercilessly beat Eurosceptics around the head for a generation. Defeat, on the other hand…
LIES AND DISTORTION
Many argued vociferously at the time – and retrospect only confirms – that Cameron needed to stare down the Eurosceptics and either avoid a referendum altogether, or postpone it until circumstances were more favourable. As it was, shameless lies and distortion by the Leave side, as well as a poor Remain effort (not helped by a lamentable campaign from Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn) all contributed to Brexit being carried by a 52/48 margin.
There would be seismic consequences for many countries, with Ireland somewhere near the front of the queue. Across the water in the US, Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump and his oily consigliere, Steve Bannon, eagerly seized on the Brexit result as proof that, in this new mood of post-Recession fury, people wanted change from politics-as-usual – they didn’t add the qualifier ‘no matter how grotesque the alternative’.
Of course, the ironies here were so large as to require new categorisation. Despite Barack Obama leading the US to firmer economic ground after inheriting a generational mess from George W. Bush, there was hostile resistance – a significant part of it racist – to his progressive social policies. Meanwhile, there seemed to be little cognisance that the runaway, immoral capitalism that caused the financial crash resulted from the kind of Reaganite Republicanism of which Trump was the living embodiment.
We were through the looking glass.
Here we also return to our old friend, social media. In the years since The Social Network, I had become an enthusiastic user of Facebook, until eventually feeling that – like anything in life – it was an activity that had run its course. As Fincher and Sorkin had hinted at, though, the tech giants had other ideas.
By mid-decade, social media had become so entrenched in our daily lives as to be literally unavoidable. It didn’t matter if you wanted out – in this dystopian new landscape, there was no escape. Inevitably, our enslavement would be ruthlessly exploited by malign political forces.
I can’t remember at what point in the autumn of 2016 I first heard the term “fake news”, but it was in the context of a report about Trump’s campaign. Apparently Zuckerberg and his colleagues in Facebook head office were doing precisely nothing about allegations that Russian troll farms were spreading all manner of conspiracy theories and outlandish bullshit about Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Farcically, my initial response was that too much was being made of it and that people would see through such chicanery. Fair to say I got that one ever so slightly wrong. We woke on November 9 to a Trump victory and the realisation that the lunatic fringe had officially gone mainstream.
The post-Brexit machinations in the Tory party would mean that, by decade’s end, we had arrived at a scenario previously only imagined in the realm of a South Park satire: Trump as President and Boris Johnson as Prime Minister.
MOOD OF DESPAIR
They say that people having been decrying the foolishness of mankind since the dawn of the human race. Be that as it may, as we enter the new decade, there is a pervasive mood of despair which I don’t recall in my lifetime. For the first time, in recent years, I have finally gained an uneasy insight into how World War 2 actually happened: it only takes a few steps for authoritarian regimes to slide towards outright fascism.
We certainly have our fair of objectionable figures around the globe. Trump. Putin. Bolsonaro. Orban in Hungary. Duerte in the Phillipines (accused by one Human Rights report of overseeing – in a phrase to truly make the blood run cold – “the systematic practice of extrajudicial killings”).
It’s more than that, though. Early last year, around the time of the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal, I went to see a public interview in Dublin’s Belvedere College with Taxi Driver and Raging Bull writer Paul Schrader. He was discussing his latest film, First Reformed, a chilling parable about climate change and the apocalyptic tenor of the times.
The interview was being recorded for radio, and a single spotlight illuminated Schrader and the interviewer in an otherwise pitch-black theatre. Schrader expressed the opinion that with the international rise of the far-right and the concurrent trashing of political discourse – all set against the backdrop of looming ecological collapse – we probably won’t make it out of the century. On the same day, I was dealing with a work crisis, and the cumulative effect left me thoroughly shaken as I walked out of Belvedere and into the freezing night air.
It’s true that when you step back and look objectively, it’s hard to come to any conclusion other than we are essentially fucked. At the same time, the human race is truly remarkable in its durability and adaptability. It is genuinely astonishing, for example, that despite our apparently limitless capacity for self-harm, a nuclear weapon hasn’t been used since World War 2. And in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, it seemed unlikely that there wouldn’t been an even more catastrophic terror attack in the west – possibly nuclear or biochemical – within the following ten years.
Throughout this uniquely turbulent period, in an unlikely development, Ireland has remained one of the few beacons of social progress internationally, thanks to the gay marriage and Repeal referendum results, as well as the elections of our first gay Taoiseach and of Michael D. Higgins as President. Still, those milestones have to be seen in the context of a country that is otherwise dysfunctional, with crises in housing, health and public transport.
Even if it may secure a speedy Brexit – though we’ll see on that score – the results of the UK election will do nothing to solve the inequality in British society. The British Labour party, meanwhile, is facing an existential crisis.
In the 2020s, we’ll have to hope there are a few more social and political breakthroughs in Ireland and elsewhere. To say there are badly needed is an understatement.
Niall Stokes will return to The Message in our Hot for 2020 Issue, published 23 January 2020.