I interviewed JD Taylor—author of Island Story: Journeys Around Unfamiliar Britain—about the motives behind his extraordinary 4-month bike tour of the UK. Dan explains that the bicycle was secondary–what was important was to get out of London and see the parts of the island that have been written out of the story—JT
Listen to the interview here, or read the full transcript below:
JT: When you set out on this journey, what did you expect to find?
JD Taylor: I had been writing a lot about politics in Britain, and I was expecting that the decreases in the standard of living would really stand out. I expected that the recession and unemployment would have caused a kickback reaction of people starting to demand a more democratic way of life. That hadn’t happened and I was quite surprised by that. It made me come to realize that perhaps what is most instrumental is not what is external, but the internal and state of culture and politics, particularly the rule of fear. I sensed that people were very afraid.
When I set out, I wanted to find out why people weren’t doing more to take their communities into their own hands…why people weren’t shocked that their children/grandchildren were going to have a much worse quality of life than they have. I sensed a confusion and inertia about what could be done. I felt like people were very disempowered.
But at the start of it, I was just completely open. I was almost confused by my own country.
JT: I see. It wasn’t first and foremost a travel journey. It was really about connecting with people and trying to get out into their nooks and crannies and test this theory.
JD Taylor: Yes. When I set out the bicycle was almost the cheapest and easiest way to get around, but I could have been quite happy walking or taking the train. What was most important was to go to places that I felt people hadn’t heard from or talked about for a long time. Somewhere like Burton. London just dominates politics and the media so much—the stories and the people from the rest of the island are made to feel provisional.
It was a research project, I suppose. It was also my own way of trying to understand my own island—I felt that I knew more about Europe or the United States than I did about the North of England or Wales. So I wanted to go out there and just talk to people and find out how they felt, what they thought, and why. I felt the best way to do that would be to just go on my own [laughs] with a tent and just talk to people and ask them, what is life like here?
JT: You’re a native Londoner?
JD Taylor: I am a native Londoner. I am from South London, and I’d not travelled at all around the West of Britain. I had some family in Leeds in the North of England, but that was it, everywhere else was a complete mystery. I couldn’t name more than about five English Counties—counties of Wales and Scotland were a total mystery; they might as well have been in Egypt or Peru. I felt almost embarrassed that I didn’t know more.
JT: What stands out to me in the book is you seem to have a narrow set of questions, which is what you’d expect from a sociological project like this. But at the same time, your observations about the countryside, and the towns, and the highways and byways really come through, so was that unexpected that you would fall in love? There’s a real romance that comes through as a reader.
JD Taylor: Yeah, that’s really well observed. I didn’t expect to get that much from the landscape if I’m honest, but I think a few days in I began to start reading something in the landscape.
I came across this really remarkable quote by W. G. Hoskins and he says that “Most of England is a thousand years old; in a walk of a few miles one can touch nearly every century in that long stretch of time.” As always, I began to think, “Well how could one read the landscape now, and how could one appreciate what was there rather than just being about the motorways, the freeways, and the shops and supermarkets, and then I began to realize that people are produced by the landscape as well. The landscape isn’t just buildings; it’s not just trees and fields. It’s the kind of people that inhabit it and speak in these dialects.
People didn’t really want to talk to me about politics because that was a domain where nobody really felt that they had any agency, but they wanted to tell me about their communities. They wanted to tell me about local myths and about beautiful spots that one could travel to in a day. This information became so much more compelling that in the end the politics and the landscape become completely interlinked. The landscape was something that people loved a lot more and I began falling in love with it through their stories.
JT: One thing that comes through again and again is you have an interest in the built aspect of what you’re observing, so here is another car park, here’s another disgusting supermarket, here’s another drab building. Maybe you could elaborate more on that? How did England strike you in terms of the built aspect not just the landscape aspect?
JD Taylor: I wanted to communicate just how ugly so much of the island has become. I felt it was necessary. Because up until, maybe about I suppose 70 or 100 years ago, so much of the landscape was fields and forests; there were far fewer roads. Up until 200 years ago, most of the population of the island were farmers, or craftsmen, or fishermen and these ways of life gave people immense satisfaction. I found that out when I talked to their children or talked to people that were still holding on to their farms and I did meet a few of them.
I wanted to almost report the damage that had been done in this quest to shuttle people into the cities to make the industrial revolution. I felt it was necessary to let people know that we’ve really damaged the place and that was regrettable, but also it’s reversible; we can rewind the landscape. We don’t need all these supermarkets, and we don’t need all these roads. People don’t really want them either, but they have never been consulted in the changes that happen to their community.
JT: You also bring in a lot of history, history that I did not know about – earlier rebellions 5, 6, 700 years ago. How did you come upon that knowledge? Is that part of the school-book learning when you’re a child in England, or is that more specialized knowledge that you’ve picked up as an adult?
JD Taylor: The knowledge I found about the island’s rebellious history was a mixture of things that people told me in odd places like pubs and supermarkets and a mixture of my own research. Generally, we’re not educated in our own history here in Britain, beyond the First and Second World Wars.
People don’t really know that much about the countryside. They certainly don’t know anything about the Neolithic settlement of the island, the farming population there, and the different migrations there. The struggles that have taken place on the land – people demanding fair rights, democratic representation is not something we’re educated in. I don’t know how to exactly give a reason why.
Some of it I found out myself through reading. People directed me to books as I was travelling. I was blogging along the way and so even if they weren’t able to put me up in their homes they would send me information for the blog. But in other places people would talk to me. I was in a supermarket in this rural part of Wales, and I was talking to a man there who was helping me put through my groceries. He started telling me about the “Rioting Rebeccas” who were a bunch of Welsh men, agricultural laborers, and they dressed up as women and would go around burning down toll gates and attacking the gentry, about a hundred-and-fifty years ago—dressed as women and dressed in costume!
JT: Why was that?
JD Taylor: It was a protest against their poverty and their low wages. I never would have found out about it had he not told me, when I was having a quite casual conversation with him about the area.
JD Taylor: These histories are there and people often know about them. People are grateful to share them because it’s not common knowledge even though it concerns the commons, the common people.
JT: Right there is an example of this living oral-history.
JD Taylor: Yeah.
JT: Was that a common occurrence, where you’d pick up old stories that had been handed on?
JD Taylor: In different places, yes, it almost reflected how, I don’t know, politically beleaguered a certain region was. In the Northeast of England, where there had been a lot of coal mining and the famous miners’ strike of 1984-1985, people would often tell me in pubs, if I stop them by on the street, and talking to people by the roadside they would tell me things about the miners’ strike, or where mines had been, or about their grandparents and how they struggled and also the difficulties of these different jobs.
There was no history in some places. At first there was a great absence; it’s like people only really lived in the present and that was certainly true of the Midlands in the South of England, which are relatively more prosperous than the rest of the island. There, there wasn’t really any kind of awareness of how people had lived up until about 60 years ago. I found that just as strange, just as interesting as these areas where people could tell me about life 500 years ago.
JT: Amazing! What was your biggest take away from the journey?
JD Taylor: Wherever you go people are generous and kind, they’re wise and intelligent, and they’re willing to help strangers and to help friends. I didn’t expect that. To be honest, I thought my bicycle was going to get stolen. I thought I’d probably get run over. I thought I might get attacked. I expected bad things. I expected xenophobia and reactionary views.
What I found instead was progressive ideas about the future; people that were concerned about their children and grandchildren. People have a great deal of ecological awareness and maybe not enough hope. That really struck me—how disappointed people were with the way things have become, with the government that we’d gotten in ’10, the way that we live, working far too much, not spending enough time with our loved ones.
It was a common story—people wanting a better life and not yet believing it’s possible, and it left me with a lot of questions at the end. I was quite ambivalent, I guess. I knew that I’d met so many good people that really wanted and deserved a much better quality of life; collectively want to be much more democratic and equal, but at the same time no one had any clear idea about how that would happen.
I wondered if people would have been feeling similarly 500 hundred or 1,000 years ago, or if this is something that really is specific to our moment—the commons being dispossessed, wanting a better life, and people giving up on politics and politicians.[Interviewer’s note: I spoke with Dan a few weeks before the Brexit vote on June 23, 2016.]
You can hear Dan in his own voice by clicking here.
Soon it will be difficult to find anyone who will have admitted to doing it. Leave’s leaders are dropping like flies – they can emigrate to Canada and enjoy the perks of an open society they affect to despise, leaving the foot soldiers behind to pick up a bill of opprobrium, self-harm and shame that follows from being had. No one sings “no one likes us, we don’t care” and really means it. The referendum was the wrong place to make a valid point against poverty and exclusion, an exclusion even more of us will share living in a country we don’t want to be identified with.
Repeater is more London-based than anything else, but we don’t exist in a London bubble. Our editors and staff are based in London, Newcastle, Wiltshire, Suffolk, and Argentina; our authors all over the UK, Europe and the world. We refuse to paint over half the country as dim racists beyond salvation. Yet no-one could deny the racism of much of the leave campaign, and the damage this has done. Racism is nothing new – in London or the rest of the UK. But what may have been covered with a thin veneer before is coming swaggering into the light, emboldened.
Unity is needed right now, but that unity must not come at the price of pandering to racism and anti-migrant rhetoric. As publishers and as people we pledge to do what we can to work towards unity, to defend and boost the marginalised, to listen, to learn, and to fight encroaching fascism wherever we can.
In an extract from her recent book Lean Out, Dawn Foster explores the limits of self-proclaimed feminist Theresa May’s solidarity with women.
The notorious Yarl’s Wood detention centre was opened in 2001, under the last Labour government, and management was outsourced to private company Serco in 2007. Poor conditions in the centre and protests against the 400-capacity facility have intensified in recent years, coming to a head in 2015. Reports of sexual abuse and mistreatment in the compound became increasingly common, and self-harm was rife among the women, who comprised of failed asylum seekers awaiting deportation, imprisoned despite committing no crime. A Channel 4 investigation obtained footage of the systemic mistreatment of women detained in the centre, included a guard shouting “Headbutt the bitch. I’d beat her up.”
Rashida Manjoo, the United Nation’s special rapporteur on violence against women, was barred from Yarl’s Wood by the Home Office in April 2014 when she tried to investigate complaints as part of her fact-finding mission into violence against women in the UK. Cameras have never been allowed in. In April 2015, in the same week as a woman died in Yarl’s Wood and a guard with a history of sexually inappropriate behaviour was￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼ suspended pending investigation for a revenge assault, Cristel Amiss, of the Black Women’s Rape Action Project, told The Guardian: “We’ve been supporting women in Yarl’s Wood for over a decade and have heard consistent reports from brave whistleblowers exposing abusive treatment and sexually predatory behaviour by guards.”
After the Channel 4 investigation, Theresa May refused to come to the House of Commons to answer an urgent question from the Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, on the treatment of detainees, called amongst other abusive names “black bitch”, “animals”, “beasties”, and “evil”. Cooper said, “There is no point in ministers pretending to be shocked at news of abuse. This is not news. Even now, the ministers have not set up an independent inquiry. This is state-sanctioned abuse of women on the Home Secretary’s watch and it needs to end now.”
Despite May’s assertions that she believes in women’s empowerment, there is a distinct limit to her solidarity, which depends on how your race, country of birth, and economic wealth intersect. As Home Secretary, May is in a position rarely occupied by women, and rarely occupied by anyone for so long. Home Secretaries tend to be hit by scandals and forced to resign with wearying regularity. But whilst in office, May has overseen some of the most draconian immigration legislation for decades, defending immigration detention, renewing contracts with Serco despite sexual violence reports, and introducing rules that mean low income families are split up and British people split up from their partners and children if they don’t earn over a soon-to-be-raised income threshold.
May sits in a cabinet with many other powerful women, especially after criticism of Cameron’s disproportionately male and Etonian cabinet refused to die down until a reshuffle. The policies that trickle down from that cabinet harm women disproportionately. Despite launching a campaign titled “Theresa May for Equal Pay” in 2008, May has endorsed an austerity regime ￼￼￼￼that saw the gender pay-gap increase, and been a stalwart of a government that introduced cuts that affected four times as many women as men.
Meanwhile, there is a burgeoning crisis in the women’s sector: provision of domestic violence services and rape crisis centres and helplines has been reduced due to austerity cuts. Headline figures on cuts to UK domestic violence services often mask the full impact of government cuts on people fleeing abuse at home. Women across the UK have been hardest hit by austerity and attendant spending cuts. Charities in the sector speak out about the problems they’re seeing: Women’s Aid has warned that services are “at breaking point”, with a third of women turned away from refuges due to lack of space, and the total number of refuges falling from 187 to 155 between 2010 and 2014. But for many of the women escaping violence, moving to a refuge is only the first step on the journey to safe, independent living.
The housing crisis, especially in the south east and London, is one of the biggest factors affecting women trying to move on. Most women spend between six to nine months in refuges, where they’re assigned a support worker who offers counselling, signposts services and advocates for the women, helping them build independent living skills, and getting them into education and training. The move to independence after surviving violence is crucial, as without support and safeguards put in place, the risk of returning home to violence and abuse is heightened.
At one refuge in London last year, run by the charity Hestia, the service manager Louise Dickerson told me: “It’s really difficult in the climate now. Because social housing is pretty much abolished, local authorities discharge their duty through private rented accommodation now most often, which is maybe on a yearly license or tenancy.” Housing waiting lists in the UK’s local councils, who have a legal duty to help homeless and vulnerable people, are at an all-time high. With so much pressure on counc￼￼￼￼￼ils, domestic violence survivors can struggle to convince council employees they are a priority. Women have even spoken of being disbelieved when they disclose their need to flee because of violence. Moving to privately rented flats means the women and families are offered less security and are liable for far higher rents: most private housing offers tenancy agreements of no longer than a year, and Hestia report more women are being asked to have a financial guarantor, who agrees to be financially liable for rent arrears. For women fleeing violence, who’ve often cut all ties to their wider family and friendship groups, this is an impossibility and an insult after their ordeal.
Even when women do find a home to move on to, the cuts mean they face even more hardship. In the raft of public-spending cuts in the last few years, many of the financial assistance schemes councils offered have been slashed. The crisis loan fund, which provided a total of £180m in hardship loans to people in extreme financial need, has now been scrapped. Economic control is a commonly used tool of domestic violence perpetrators when preventing women from leaving: removing financial help for such vulnerable women and children puts lives at risk. This money was previously a lifeline for people in extreme distress and very vulnerable situations, and losing it puts even more pressure on domestic violence services. As Dickerson explains:
They’ve taken away the crisis loan, and women relied on that for resettlement. So women will leave without a mattress to sleep on, and some of them have young families. One woman was self-harming recently, living in a shelter that was not homely. It’s very challenging for our workers. We work really hard just to make sure the women can survive.
Other lifelines of financial support are also being slowly eroded. The Discretionary Housing Payment funding, which provide payments of up to a year for people facing difficulty paying their accommodation costs, is to be slashed by 24% from 2015.
In a speech to Women’s Aid’s annual conference in 2010 in the early days of the coalition, May told the audience that both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats would reverse the decline in rape crisis centres, but tentatively refused to make any funding commitments to the women’s sector in the face of looming local authority cuts. “Your problem is my problem”, May said, adding, “Success for us will not mean we’ve spent more of the money we don’t have. It will mean more women have been helped, more abusers have been brought to justice and more attitudes have been changed.”
It’s not precisely clear how May and the government expect rape crisis centres to continue to provide an identical service with less money, which perhaps explains why she is not chancellor, but does little to comfort the women in need who find their service threatened with closure. Violence against women is a problem for all of society, and without accepting that all services must be welcoming and accessible for women fleeing violence and crucially that they must be adequately funded, more women will find their lives in danger.
The benefit of having women in the cabinet remains to be seen for migrant, low-paid, or abused women. For now, it seems as though there is no difference: the powerful look after the powerful, with gender as an afterthought, or a bargaining chip when trying to deflect criticism for cuts that harm women.
J.D. Taylor on the Brexit vote’s fallout as a search for new island narratives.
Strange energies have been unleashed by the Brexit campaign which no political faction looks capable of containing, whatever the outcome of this Thursday’s vote.
Whilst the Brexit vote has effectively become a plebiscite on uncontrolled immigration, the anger it has unleashed around the country raises older questions about narratives of identity and belonging. The cumulative effects of deindustrialisation, austerity, privatisation and the demonisation of the poor has reached a point where many of these narratives are unravelling into incoherency. And whilst efforts are being expended, often ineffectually, to argue for the values of cosmopolitanism or political sovereignty, less has been made of the decades-deep disempowerment and disaffection by which the island’s own collective story has come undone.
The social security contract has become a war against the poor, and an eerily popular one at that; the National Health Service may soon collapse into a mess of private provision and statutory but overwhelmed free access. The great public industries and utilities have been dismantled and sold overseas for peanuts. Talk to any frontline professional in health and social care, education, housing or justice and one is warned that services are at breaking point, crushed between increasing demand and diminishing workforces and pay. For now, heroic efforts are made to keep things going. No doubt fears about rent arrears or losing one’s home are equally compelling. Few (rightly) believe that the welfare state would support them should things turn south. But it is becoming clear that even this noble lemming logic is insufficient to the demands placed on it. And this disaffection against this unravelling ratchets in intensity.
Communities that made things or mined them, farmed things or fished them, have been dashed against the rocks in the last forty years at an accelerating rate, in a story most of us are familiar with, even if some still groan at terms like neoliberalism. Standing without purpose, the towns and cities outside the island’s capital cities, and the lives within which animate them, have found themselves superfluous to a new economic order founded on crooked financial activity and inflated property prices down South. I describe places that I travelled through and spent time in when I wrote Island Story, an account of a long summer journeying across Britain by bike in an attempt to understand its diverse communities and stories. I found a surfeit of communities of non-participants, excluded economically and politically, angered that the decisions that transformed their work, neighbourhoods, family lives and self-images have been made elsewhere. I believe that their voices have for this brief moment become politically important.
The Leave campaigners have exploited this disaffection and disorientation and projected it onto Europe. The EU is now a euphemism for undemocratic, unaccountable and arbitrary authority. Whether this is true or not isn’t in question, because the tenor of the Brexit arguments has been intrinsically anti-political and, in many cases, sceptical of factual evidence or discussion. The interests of private capital have been internalised. People talk of economic growth and trade deals that will benefit no person they know of; they talk of migrants overwhelming services they have never used. They do not perceive that the island’s infrastructure and social safety net has collapsed so unsustainably that in five years Promethean efforts will be required to rebuild them. Remarkably, a decision that could permanently deface apparently ‘British’ ideas about fair play, solidarity, liberalism and communal obligation is being made on the flimsiest of evidence.
But this is a vote about narratives, even where politics is reduced to personality and prejudice. More interesting is that the Remain vote expresses hatred for the political establishment and, in many cases, for the debilitation of working class ex-industrial communities left by capitalism. Contempt for Brussels is overblown: the largely English, non-London support to leave Europe is an English independence movement in parallel to the Scots. Of course, wherever a dominant social group is appealed to as a victim of injustice and moral outrage, bad things follow. But there is a markedly working class composition to this independence movement, one which rejects not the values of cosmopolitanism (an erroneous judgement by the mostly young, middle-class pro-Remain contingent – people like me) but what it considers a political and social establishment which has rubbished and destroyed their class cultures and ways of life, like those I encountered, lived among and narrate in Island Story.
Its response is misguided and likely to lead to disappointment. But this anti-establishment turn among the English is significant. Whether this collection of different social groups will cohere in enough numbers to force the UK out of the EU and its status in the global economic order is unclear, but this new pressure will leave behind an imprint on the terrain around it.
‘Most of England is 1,000 years old’, writes the landscape historian W.G. Hoskins. In a ‘walk of a few miles one can touch nearly every century in that long stretch of time’. Witness time in the undulations, roads and settlements along the landscape. Observe its failure of passage in the fatalistic deference to traditions and to beacons of aristocratic authority. If much of the Brexit discussion is insular and inward-looking, the question it raises — who owns Britain? — presents a more compelling line of inquiry. The old narrative of the United Kingdom is no longer sustainable. Divisions between the island’s countries, let alone between the South-East and the rest of England, are becoming irreconcilable.
In the collapse of the old ways, and the murkiness of the contemporary political fog, comes the possibility to explore what another island story might amount to. One that reckons with the facts of automation and the required reduction of work in our lifetimes, with the possibilities of renewable energies and of the necessity of living sustainably, of individual liberalism, of a sceptical, Internet-reliant citizenship. One that learns from but is no longer burdened by the past.
As I travelled around the island, I found ways of life wrecked, communities dispersed, and a prevailing sense of despair and acquiescence in an unjust but apparently inevitable fate. But I also found people and projects that inspired me in their drive to question the realism and inevitability of the current political order, one that seems now more fragile than at any point in recent history. I met remarkable individuals and collectives determined to re-establish the foundations of a fairer, kinder, more wise and equal society. Rarely are they popular, but they indicate another story or journey that might lead beyond the ugly, hostile and xenophobic miasma of the Brexit question.
I met people like Eden, rearing sheep on a council farm in Darlington beside a gargantuan Argos distribution centre. He told me of EU subsidies, subsistence farming, the one way of life he and others know, and ‘the unholy mess that’s developing’ in food production. Farmers are often misunderstood and vilified, so too are welfare recipients, like those Sonya was helping in Morecambe. Sonya was a lettings agent in the private sector, increasingly the main handlers of those dependent out of disability or circumstance on housing benefit. She described the choices people made between heating and eating, trapped in a cycle of unemployment, debt, temporary work, and back again. ‘What good are foodbanks when people haven’t got enough to pay their gas or electricity to heat the food?’ she asked. She was also a local historian, one of the brightest minds I’d met, locked out of higher education by circumstance, trying to give her two sons a better life.
Then there was Ciaran, like me in his 20s, working at the Sabhal Mòr Ostaig college on Skye, a centre for the renaissance of the Scots Gaelic tongue. He argued that Scotland’s future had more in common with social democratic Scandinavia than neoliberal London (‘London feels like a foreign country here’). He and his friends couldn’t afford to buy a home locally because of the migration of second-home seeking English incomers, forcing up house prices. Like many young Scots, he was politically informed, passionate, and hopeful about the future, in a way often missing south of Berwick.
I met Thomas Turgoose, the muse of Shane Meadows’ films, pulling pints and interrupting fights in a rough and tumble boozer in Grimsby, who spoke of the incoherency and impossibility of locating a singular national identity. Then there was Colin, attempting to rebuild from a few forgotten rail-tracks the Teign Valley railway that once weaved through Dartmoor. I slept on one of his train carriages and talked into the night about the lost future of a modern and sustainable railway travel that might one day become possible again. Dreamers some, heartbroken others. ‘Stay with life’, said a melancholy Father Michael on the Kyle of Tongue. Among the sadness and incoherence and heartbreak and anger is a hope, a possibility, that permeates these stories, and the book, like a pulse.
And so I have told their stories, because if we are to reconstruct a sense of collectivity and possibility out of this mess, then it will not be through venal and corrupt politicians or Twitter hot-takes, but each of us, all of us, thinking, deliberating and cooperating, living together as a collective endeavour.
The story of another island.
Phil Knight’s take on the impending EU referendum
On the surface, the debate, such that it is, around a possible exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union, appears to be between two irrationalisms – between the fear of immigration and a globalized world on the one hand, and between the fear of economic collapse and a rise of dangerous nationalist sentiment on the other. The debate has also highlighted an asymmetry in the sides ostensibly conducting the debate, between “populists” who profess to represent the people, and an internationalist elite who affect to represent a disinterested, common sense, preference for stability.
Both of these sides, although they are largely unaware of it themselves, are capable of appearing surprisingly sinister, and that is because Brexit has unavoidably brought to the fore the structures of power that govern the global economy, and which normally prefer to remain unseen. The harsh warnings, easily interpreted as threats, against leaving the European Union that have emanated from foreign leaders and supranational institutions have been surprising not just for their starkness, but for the obvious approval they have garnered from the British establishment, notably from the Prime Minister himself, and his Chancellor, George Osbourne. This has demonstrated a key factor in Neoliberalism, not generally recognised but keenly felt, that national elites are not on the side of those they govern. The referendum has made abundantly clear that Cameron and Osbourne’s “people” are the likes of Christine Lagarde, Donald Tusk, Francois Hollande and Jamie Dimon – these, their fellow members of the international ruling class, are who they feel answerable to, and not their voters or the British public in general. This is now in the open for all to see, in a way that it hasn’t been before.
The consolidation of this ruling class also has a bearing on the stresses within the EU that have helped to generate the referendum. Fundamentally, I suspect that a pan-European state is perfectly feasible, and that state would be capable of absorbing large numbers of immigrants from outside Europe if that was felt to be necessary or desirable. However, such a state would require the genuine acquiescence of the people of Europe, and such an acquiescence would by necessity be a slow, organic process. Patience would be required as a genuine sense of a primary European identity, above existing national identities, slowly emerged and crystallized over generation after generation. This might take centuries to happen, and would require great tact and flexibility from the leaders of the EU.
However, there are two potential problems to such an approach. The first is the ordinary impatience that derives from human mortality. Few people are prepared to lay the groundwork for projects that will only bear fruit years after they are dead. Mostly, people want to see their projects completed within their own lifetimes. Secondly, the necessities of international capitalism, the need to harmonize and regulate markets and reduce barriers to trade, do not move at an organic pace. Indeed they are fundamentally inorganic. The result of these influences has been that European integration has been conducted to an artificial and inflexible timetable, with little regard to the views of the various European publics. This approach could just about be undertaken when the EU could dependably deliver economic growth and social improvement, but any significant economic rupture would always expose doubts in the legitimacy of the European project.
There is yet another, more existential quality to the manner that “ever-closer union” has been undertaken. Both the EU and Globalisation are escatological concepts, and both place their eschatons in the recent past. Just as Globalisation posits the fall of the Berlin Wall as the end of history, so the EU’s eschaton is the Maastricht Treaty, which transformed the European Community into the nascent state that is the European Union, and created its flawed currency, the Euro. This moment, being an eschaton, bestowed upon the EU another pair of characteristics that are implicit in escatology.
Firstly, it conferred upon the EU the aura of a spiritual project, the idea that the EU marks a clear break from the dark days of the old Europe, riven as it was with discord and warfare, into a new, permanent era of peace and light. This sense of a clear break inevitably suggests the second characteristic – the dogmatic, inflexible insistence that there is no turning back. The project goes in one direction and one direction only.
As such the EU, as with globalisation, is a religion, but as the people have not bought into them, they are high caste religions, or temple cults. This is particularly problematic because as the various peoples of Europe increasingly reject the European project, and question its legitimacy, the EU cannot respond with flexibility and compromise. Thus a pernicious dynamic has been generated in which the EU responds to such existential threats by attempting to advance its agenda all the more urgently. This is creating nationalists and demagogues, and contrary to those who believe that the EU represents stability, it is in fact the very source of the instability that threatens to undermine it.
The existential, spiritual necessity of the EU to its ruling class also explains the so-called scaremongering of the Remain campaign. Although its warnings of economic disaster and warfare are dismissed as being purely manipulative by its opponents, this is not the whole story. Because the EU, and globalisation, are necessarily a permanent state of affairs, it is unthinkable to their proselytisers that they might be reversed, or cease to exist. Thus the elite Remainers are, with their scaremongering, projecting the destruction of their own psyches. Following the collapse of 2008, and the failure of the Euro, Brexit threatens to continue the collapse of their entire worldview, as the EU cracks and Globalisation starts to be rolled back. This collapse will happen anyway, as the fissures in both the EU and the global economy are already beyond repair, and all Britain leaving the EU will do is hasten their demise. World leaders, or those who replace them, will then begin the search for the next eschaton on which to build their secular religion.
Perhaps there will be a Cult of Brexit.
Mark Perryman previews England v Wales as competing versions of nationhood
The traditional ‘Battle of Britain’ match is of course England v Scotland, the very first recognised international football match dating back to 1872 and the most intense of rivalries ever since. The last time two ‘home’ nations met in a major tournament it was again England v Scotland at Euro 96. The spark in so many ways for the break-up-Britain agenda that was to follow the Blair government devolution referendums a year later and latterly transformed into the SNP ‘tartan landslide’. Once derided by Jim Sillars as ‘ninety-minute nationalists’ Scots today are so busy building a nation they can call their own they haven’t much time left over for their under-performing football team, ouch!
Instead it will be the Welsh who will take the field on Thursday against Scotland’s ‘auld enemy’. An encounter inevitably affected by the ugly scenes the weekend before in Marseille. It was the historian Eric Hobsbawm who once observed, “ The individual, even the one who only cheers, becomes a symbol of the nation himself.” This was sadly true of those brutalised encounters in the south of France. Though as my friend Julie Nerney who was there has pointed out the habit of most travelling England fans is to “learn where to go and not to when you travel to games. Avoiding the places where it was obvious there was a chance of things kicking off. Knowing what the signs of a flashpoint were and extricating yourself from any situation where you might simply end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.” And thus in Marseille as Julie reports “Bars in the main square of any town are a magnet for trouble. Many sensible fans give them a wide berth.” This is the hidden story behind the headlines about an episode like Marseille 2016. Meanwhile in another part of town I’d helped organise a fans’ mini tournament England v Russia, another mate, John Lunt, who played describes the experience, “Had fun, we may have lost all our games, but made a few friends when others were doing their best not to.”
Little of this features in how most would think of the Englishness on parade at Euro 2016. Britain is a mix of contradictions, at home right now. Bathing in the collective and transnational experience of being European via the Euros while according to the referendum polls more than half the country couldn’t exit the continent fast enough For the English such contradictions are exacerbated by a very particular identity crisis. When England and Wales line-up for kick off each set of players, and fans will belt out their respective National Anthems. The Welsh, Land of our Fathers, while the English, like the Northern Irish, have to sing somebody else’s. Eh? That’s right us and the Northern Irish don’t have an anthem as every other country does, instead we have to sing an anthem that belongs to somewhere else, Great Britain. Yet the English tenaciously cling to an anthem which isn’t even ours as a source of great comfort. “Long to Reign Over Us, Happy and Glorious ” in those two lines the English contradictions of subjecthood neatly summed up.
American author Franklin Foer in his book How Soccer Explains the World points to the range of forces of globalisation which threaten this settled subjecthood founded on an unchanging notion of what it means to be English. Take a look at the players on any Premier League pitch, in the technical area the managers, coaches and backroom staff, the ownership of the bigger, and some smaller, clubs, the audience in the stands and via TV, the exchange of playing styles and tactics. There is very little left about our football which is precisely English.
Despite these forces of Europeanisation and globalisation however Foer makes a key point about soccer(sic) and culture; “ Of course, soccer isn’t the same as Bach or Buddhism. But it is often more deeply felt than religion, and just as much a part of the community’s fabric, a repository of traditions.” This is why England v Wales is always going to be about more than a football match.
An Englishness subject to imperial and martial tradition helps explain the ugly saliency of immigration as an issue in the Euro referendum non-debate and this reminds me of Satnam Virdee’s description of 1970s Powellism.
A powerful re-imagining of the English nation after empire, reminding his audience it was a nation for whites only. In that historical moment the confident racism that had accompanied the high imperial moment mutated into a defensive racism, a racism of the vanquished who no longer wanted to dominate but to physically expel the racialised other from the shared space they occupied, and thereby erase them and the Empire from its collective memory.
The make-up of the England team might appear a powerful antidote to these forces of reaction. But unlike the Welsh, and most particularly the Scots, the English barely possess a civic understanding of nationhood, instead it is mired in the racial. A football team may project some kind of alternative sense of being English but in the absence of political forces to make that argument it’s not enough. In June 2016 that couldn’t be more obvious.
None of this will help us predict the score when Bale’s Welshmen take on Rooney’s Englishmen but it certainly helps us understand how such an encounter is framed, consumed and understood. Performance isn’t something restricted just to the pitch y’know.
Mark Perryman is the editor of the new book 1966 and Not All That published by Repeater Books and available from Philosophy Football.
Guest post by John Medhurst
The central concern of modern politics is the extent to which the destructive, anti-social effects of neoliberal capitalism – most obviously those produced by the financial sector and fossil fuel industry – should be subject to public regulation. The most life-threatening activity within modern America—wide-spread and easily accessible gun ownership—is a relic of rampant free-market individualism. The results are grim.
The superhero genre (comics or film) cannot avoid the issues raised. Most superheroes, after all, are vigilantes. They have no legal sanction to do what they do, yet because the rules of the superhero story function in their favour they are seldom hunted down and arrested. The threats they respond to are always real, the actions they take avert a far worse injustice or disaster (sometimes genocidal), they never accidentally kill someone, and thus their actions are justified in the terms of the world they inhabit.
In the most famous example of police-vigilante collusion, Batman is given tacit authorisation for his activities by Gotham’s senior police official. In recent Batman stories Commissioner Gordon is criticised for this by the media and politicians, even investigated by antagonistic colleagues, but he always prevails, usually after a homicidal psychopath like the Joker is brought to heel by Batman. Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films placed its hero’s relationship to the law front and centre.
DC and Marvel rarely do the same. Superman, the Flash and Green Lantern carry on regardless. Grant Morrison’s iconic run on the Justice League simply made the League’s threats so cosmic they either never took place on Earth, or if they did there was self-evidently no other body than the League who could deal with them. Warren Ellis’s The Authority addressed it by frankly admitting that the Authority – An alternate version of the Justice League with added sexual diversity, radical politics and ultra-violence – were imposing their power on “bad guys”, and bad governments, simply because they could. As a limited series outside DC continuity it could do that. Mainstream heroes cannot, or at least not without raising intractable problems that would dominate future storylines.
Marvel has a double standard. On the one hand its “street level” heroes – Spiderman, Daredevil, Luke Cage – are routinely harassed by the media, the most obvious example being the Daily Bugle’s editor J. Jonah Jameson’s obsessive pursuit of Spiderman; and the X-Men are frequently persecuted by anti-mutant forces within government. On the other its premier superhero team, the Avengers, is granted enormous latitude.
Although the Avengers’ team roster continually changes it revolves around the “big three” – Captain America, Iron Man and Thor. Given the iconic nature of these characters, and the manner in which the Avengers operate openly from Avengers Mansion or Stark Tower in New York, a dramatic device is needed to explain their freedom to operate. Thus, since the 1980s, the Avengers have been a semi-official arm of first the American government and then the UN. They have official license to respond to major threats. Their status dwarfs that of local law enforcement or even national armed forces, and ensures support from inter-governmental bodies such as SHIELD.
The only real political difficulty was in Kurt Busiek’s daring 2001 storyline in which the Avengers’ government liaison insists they meet diversity criteria and have more black and minority ethnic heroes in their main 7-person roster. “All the founding Avengers were white,” he points out, “even the Hulk, when he’s not green”. Thor, not of this earth, finds the demand incomprehensible. Captain America frankly admits he is of a different era and not the man to oversee it. Iron Man concedes the group should be more representative of society but prefers “…it happen naturally, rather than by quota”.
Busiek carefully balances the issue by including a demand from anti-mutant bigots that the Avengers actively exclude mutants like the Scarlet Witch. For all the subtlety of the storyline, the main Avengers (Thor aside) are presented as well-meaning liberals, assailed by petty ideologues on both sides.
It is the great merit of the 7-issue Marvel “event” comic Civil War (first published in 2007) that it directly addressed, in a relatively adult and sophisticated manner, the politics of superhero regulation. Significantly, it was written by a non-American writer, Mark Millar, whose Kick-Ass and Wanted also gleefully deconstructed the tropes of the genre.
In Civil War a crisis of confidence in superheroes arises when a second-tier band of heroes, whose adventures are filmed for a reality TV show, attempt to take down some “super-villains” who are out of their league in order to secure higher ratings, leading to a catastrophic explosion in a suburban town which kills hundreds of people, including an entire infants school.
The disaster starts a public debate about the need to “register” superheroes to ensure they are trained and accountable to the public they are supposed to serve, encapsulated in the proposal for a “Superhuman Registration Act” (SRA) under which all who wish to behave as a superhero must first divulge their identity to the government, which will then train and license them.
The proposal splits the superhero community down the middle. At a meeting called by the Fantastic Four to discuss the issue, the Wasp (who is independently wealthy) decries the absurdity of “turning us into civil servants” with “pension plans and vacation time”. Others disagree. Interviewed on Larry King Live, She-Hulk – aka lawyer Jennifer Walters – asks of super-heroes, “Training them up and making them carry badges? Yes, I’d say that sounds like a reasonable response”.
The debate polarises around Iron Man (Tony Stark) and Captain America (Steve Rogers), with Stark regarding the accident as a “wake up call”. “Becoming public employees makes perfect sense if it helps people sleep a little easier” he tells his colleagues. Rogers, the man from the 1940s, sees the demand that superheroes disclose their identities and work only to government dictat as a fundamental attack on civil rights.
Significantly it is Stark, not Rogers, who has the personal effect of unregulated superheroics brought home to him. At a memorial for the dead, the mother of one of the children killed in the explosion slaps his face and blames him for her son’s death. Stark is shaken by the encounter and forced to re-think his assumptions. Rogers never has such an encounter.
Instead, his crucial moment is a stand-off with the new Director of SHIELD, Maria Hill. At first Hill believes that Captain America will help SHIELD enforce the new law, simply because it is the law, but Rogers disabuses her. He insists that superheroes must “…stay above all this stuff, or Washington starts telling us who the super-villains are”, to which Hill responds “I thought super-villains were guys in masks who refused to obey the law?”. Rogers then breaks out of the SHIELD Helicarrier and forms a group of underground heroes who refuse to abide by the SRA whilst continuing their activities.
Interestingly, the common position amongst American readers was that Stark was the “villain” and Rogers the “hero”. But the text does not bear this out. Stark’s arguments are logical and reasonable, whereas Rogers’s are emotional and dogmatic. It is clear that Stark is simply trying to control an impossible situation and respond to public concern. Later in the story the argument is skewed because Stark and his main supporters (Reed Richards and Hank Pym, the “intellectuals” of the Marvel universe and therefore, by implication, lacking Rogers’s simple humanity) make some dubious decisions and catastrophic mistakes.
After it becomes clear that the two sides are evenly matched Richards and Stark make a cyborg clone of the absent Thor to take down Rogers’s team, but it malfunctions and accidentally kills the second-stringer hero Goliath. Stark and SHIELD then grant a special license to jailed super-villains such as the homicidal Bullseye and Venom (controlled by nano-implants to ensure they do not go too far) to enforce registration. At this point Stark loses the moral high-ground.
But Millar is careful to balance every decision and compromise. Even the flinty integrity of Captain America is tainted when he allows the mass murderer Frank Castle, the Punisher, to fight for his side. Castle, who is already a wanted fugitive, joins Captain America’s team after Stark starts using super-villains to enforce registration. When two minor villains come to Rogers’s team for help against the government the Punisher casually shoots them both dead, whereupon an appalled Captain America beats him to a pulp. When one of the team wonders why Castle refuses to strike back, another answers “Are you kidding? Cap’s probably the reason he went to Vietnam”.
Millar’s most effective device (impossible to replicate in the film version as the Fantastic Four belong to another studio) is to bring the division in the Marvel fraternity down to the most intimate level – the marriage of Mr Fantastic and the Invisible Woman, Reed and Sue Richards. Sue, appalled at her husband’s complicity in creating the Thor-clone that killed Goliath, and after penning a poignant goodbye note, leaves Reed to his “graphs and social projections” and joins Captain America’s underground network.
Sue is presented as more emotionally empathetic, but is Reed actually wrong? In discussion with She-Hulk, who feels that he and Stark “gave us a future”, he cites massive public approval for the SRA and a subsequent decline in crime rates after the new “50-state Initiative” (a different team of registered super-heroes assigned to every U.S state) is rolled out. His points are never answered or refuted.
This is rich source material for a film, and is the basis of the recently released Captain America: Civil War. In the film the main issue is not superhero “registration” in the sense of revealing secret identies, but the need for the Avengers to place themselves under the “Sokovia Accords” agreed by 150 countries – in effect UN oversight, with the Avengers only allowed to do what an inter-governmental panel authorises them to do. As in the comic, Stark (who in the last Avengers movie created the Ultron robot that led to mass destruction in Sokovia) agrees that this is for the best. Rogers does not.
Naturally, in a film intended for a mass audience, the nuances of the comic are simplified. The final confrontation between Stark and Rogers, seemingly averted after they realise the entire situation has been stoked by a hidden villain, erupts because Rogers’s brain-washed friend the Winter Soldier is revealed to have killed Stark’s parents.
But neither Civil War the comic or Captain America: Civil War the film can disguise the vital political issue they raise, which is the extent to which important public functions should be publicly controlled and accountable, not privatised or subject to “light-touch regulation”. The notable achievement of the comic – and the film, to a lesser extent – is to base its drama around a real philosophical and political argument, and to give the protagonists on either side credible, understandable positions, neither of which is entirely “right” or “wrong”.
The final word should rest with Maria Hill, the salaried civil servant possessed of no super-power except her democratic political mandate. When Captain America stands before her in all his glory and tells her “Masked heroes have been a part of this country for as long as anyone can remember”, she brusquely replies “So’s smallpox. Now grow up and stop being an idiot”.
Psychopathy and sociopathy
In my forthcoming book, The Psychopath Factory: How Capitalism Organizes Empathy (forthcoming from Repeater), I make a distinction between psychopathy and sociopathy. The two terms are commonly used in an interchangeable way, as if they are one and the same, but in my view there is an important difference. I argue that sociopathy ought to refer to behaviour whereas psychopathy ought to refer to internal psychology. More precisely, sociopathy ought to refer to behaviour that fails to meet our expectations and psychopathy to a psychology that does not align with how we expect others to feel and think.
Let’s consider sociopathy first and look at how and why persons fall foul of social expectations or do not conform to social code. People may fall foul of social code for any number of reasons. The reasons could be linked to malice, kindness or ignorance. David Brent from The Office, for example, is reflexively impoverished—he just isn’t aware of his faux pas; he cannot see himself from the view of the other. Brent thinks he is a charming and smooth operator when he is quite the opposite—a cringingly awkward sociopath. Alan Partridge is similar; he thinks he’s cool but often fails to behave in the socially expected manner. It’s not that Alan Partridge has bad intentions, he is not spiteful – but he doesn’t always know when to curb his honesty. At a funeral, in the episode ‘Towering Alan’ he asks “Would it be terribly rude to stop listening to you and go and speak to someone else?” Moments later, after a further faux pas, he finds himself speaking to the deceased’s widow. She asks him if “something is the matter?” and Alan Partridge, the all-too-honest sociopath, plainly explains “I want to be talking to him over there”, pointing and grinning. Larry David’s character in Curb Your Enthusiasm is sociopathic too. David often causes offence, yet he never means to—more often than not he causes offence or finds himself in an awkward social bind because of his overactive altruism.
Of course Brent, Partridge and David are innocent sociopaths: they don’t really do anybody much harm. Brent and Partridge might be a little self-centred and insensitive at times, yet they are not mean. But how do we know? Why do we suppose that someone behaving in an anti-social way or failing to conform to social expectations should be mean or ‘evil’? Is it right to make assumptions for internal psychology based on external behaviour that falls foul of social expectations? A person might bump into you on the street and not apologise. This is unsocial, and the bumper is sociopathic in this instance. But we should not guess their internal drives from this episode. They could be clumsy, ill, poor-sighted. They may not know our language. Of course, they might be out to do us harm or steal from us—but really, we just don’t know. We know their behaviour is, in local terms, sociopathic but we cannot know with certainty what their internal psychological drive is and we shouldn’t begin making paranoid or judgmental assumptions.
Social behaviour has a tenuous relationship to internal psychology. Many times we behave in a manner that doesn’t quite reflect our internal self. Who hasn’t sat through a boring presentation wishing to get up and leave but remained fused in place because it’d be rude to leave? The disjunct between behaviour and psychology is, in many ways, the root of socialization, politeness and manners. Children are honest sociopaths, they ask ‘rude’ questions like ‘why is he fat?’, until they are socialized—until they learn to lie, curb their impulses and behave in the expected ways. ‘Say sorry like you mean it’ we tell them. This is the other side of the disjunct between behaviour and psychology—being perfectly social whilst secretly yearning to be otherwise. Behaviour being at odds with psychology is where psychopathy comes in. Those we suspect of having a psychology at odds with how we feel they ought to feel (given their behaviour) are psychopaths. We could quip that the process of socialization is a case of impulsive sociopaths learning to be controlled and polite psychopaths.
If we suspect someone lacks empathy, or is being nice, behaving just right, for secretly manipulative or controlling purposes we might call them a psychopath. On some level we know that many people are nice and very social for ulterior motives (salesmen, for example). We readily accept the disjunct between behaviour and psychology. Indeed, the notion of a charming and polite psychopath is very much the form of psychopath that is a contemporary fascination. Part of the enduring appeal of Hannibal Lecter is surely the juxtaposition between his socially adroit conduct, his manners and sensitivity on one hand, and our knowledge of his violent and depraved wants, on the other. Patrick Bateman, too, is fascinating because of his normal appearance: his inconspicuousness, his conformity to social codes. If we met him at a cocktail party, he’d be anonymous, unremarkable and forgettable. In cinema the go-to trope of showing the viewer how psychology is at odds with appearance and behaviour is undoubtedly the ‘mirror-scene’. In such a scene we see the gaze of a character checking their own appearance, making sure they look normal, just right. We see such a device in Sexy Beast, Malice, American Psycho, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cruising and Taxi Driver, to name a few.
Psychopathy is not necessarily always good behaviour masking a psychology that is lacking in empathy or good intentions. It may well be that a person with bad intentions behaves true to their wants – in which case we would view them as a sociopath. Nonetheless, this similarity between the honest psychopath and a sociopath does not vitiate the distinction drawn here. The distinction is based on what we are taking to be at odds with what we expect. If we are considering behaviour, we can say to what degree a person is sociopathic, whereas if we are considering psychology we may speculate to what degree we consider them to be psychopathic. In each instance behaviour has no necessary bearing on psychology and, of course, vice versa. There is a socio-axis, behaviour based and observable, and there is a psycho-axis based on our speculations of another’s psychology. Thus, we can draw up some modes of the disjunct or correlation between behaviour and psychology: well-meaning sociopaths, ill-meaning sociopaths, super-social psychopaths and, lastly, anti-social psychopaths (anti-social psychopaths may be quite similar to ill-meaning sociopaths).
Super-social psychopathy is perhaps the category we can best relate to. Don’t we all put on an act that is at odds with how we really feel inside? We have probably told people we are ‘fine, thanks’ when, actually, we might have been far from it. We may have embellished a little too much during an interview and said we are ‘passionate and enthusiastic’ about whatever mundane cognitive work pays a wage. Perhaps we are, at times, like a polite and charming super-social psychopath—yet behaving more like a sociopath might reflect our true selves more accurately.
The mask of conspicuity: psychopaths masquerading as sociopaths
Throughout the writing of The Psychopath Factory, a certain real-life character haunted me—Jimmy Savile. Savile never quite fitted into my scheme of categorization. On one hand, he knew how to behave socially and could manipulate others. But on the other hand, he was not exactly a conformist. Nor was he an extrovert either. He seemed paradoxical, chimerical: at once reclusive and secretive whilst also showing off and craving attention, power and control. One of the insights of Dan Davies’ marvellous In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile is how brazenly open Savile was about his proclivities and impulses. “Jimmy Savile offered a rare glimpse into his mind-set as he dragged his ageing body around the 26.2-mile course. ‘At times I feel like strangling every other competitor in the race,’ he confessed. ‘I mean really, truly murdering them.” This is one of many iterations of his strategy of revealing his deeply anti-social mind-set in a light and open fashion. Another is his notorious declaration of hating children. ‘‘’I hate kids…I’m very good with them because I hate them,’ he continued. ‘They know I’m not some yucky adult. I like to confuse them because they don’t know where they are then. Then they start to fall in love with you. Nobody confuses kids like I do; they try to understand them and reason with them. I think all kids should be eaten at birth.’’’ Savile seemed to state truths so horrid that they would be taken as outlandish jest or banter. He would lie about many things—he was a pathological liar by many accounts—but he would always pepper his lies with the most unthinkable truths. Davies recalls how the last time he met with Savile, at a restaurant, a waiter asked him if everything was OK after Savile had barked ‘c*nt’, causing a commotion. The waiter then asked if there was anything else he needed and Savile said, plainly, “two 16 year old girls from Ukraine”.
Savile was also flash. The garish tracksuits, the statement Rolls Royce, the blonde hair, large cigar (he’d smoke bigger cigars in public), the bling—the diamond studded Rolex, the ‘jangle-jangle’—were all part of a campaign of cultivated conspicuity. “’It’s part of the charismatic package’ he offered”. This is psychopathy masquerading as sociopathy. It is the knowing performance of sociopathy, the camouflage of conspicuity—the distraction tactic of appearing not to conform. It is not sociopathic in the sense of a violent and misbehaving criminal. Nor is it sociopathic in the sense of Brent and Partridge who fail at trying to conform to social code. Savile wasn’t a sociopath but a psychopath who performed a certain form of sociopathy. He maintained an appearance of sociopathy, knowing its potential to obfuscate and cloak his true self: “I don’t have to do anything, I just have to be. I’m like a piece of soap in the bath; you can see it but when you try to get hold of it it’s gone’’.
Of course, we all perform a little, we might brag about not conforming to the speed limit for example. We might not like to think of ourselves as a total conformist, we like to be a little different, special or unique. But there is a performance of sociopathy that many high-profile people maintain to at once distract from and advance themselves. There are many low-level performances of sociopathy.
Boris Johnson, the lovable Teflon rogue, allegedly spends an hour on his hair each morning. His shambolic and rumpled appearance has, it seems, a certain appeal—he plays on the ingratiating potential of self-depreciation: the charm of fluster. (We may have done something similar, we may have put a little bit too much effort into appearing like we don’t care, spent some time composing a text or tweet with just the right amount of nonchalance.) Boris Johnson is not a sociopath, he’s not quite Toad of Toad Hall; he’s not reckless but merely appears to be so, and this has proved advantageous. (It could be argued that Trump is the US equivalent. His ex-butler said of him in a documentary; “He loves mirrors…he morphs into whatever you want him to be”). Unlike many other politicians, ‘Boris’ seems to get no bad publicity. Even his outright failures and gaffs seem to serve only to ingratiate him more. Bungling, buffoon, blundering often prefix Boris – even genuine mistakes that ought to finish the career of mortal politicians are laughed off. Primed by his dishevelled and casual abandon we excuse Boris. ‘That’s Boris!’ We chuckle and tut.
Jeremy Clarkson is another skilful performer of sociopathy. He has built a career on pre-meditated faux pas and calculated offence. Although in many ways he is unlike Savile (contrary to the suggestions of some who, in terms of Clarkson’s ‘Savilesque’ power and influence, made the comparison after David Cameron came to Clarkson’s defence—supposedly echoing Thatcher’s praise of Savile— after his suspension from Top Gear for physically assaulting a producer in an altercation glossed jollily as a ‘fracas’ or ‘scuffle’ in most mainstream media) there is a striking similarity in terms of performing sociopathy. What’s more, there is also a notable similarity in his motivation for performing sociopathy—to prevent his true self being revealed. He has been quite frank about this in a recent interview published in The Times:
“The whole thing is an act, of course,” he says at one point. What? “My job, my TV persona. ‘Jeremy Clarkson.’ It’s a mask. We all wear masks. It’s not the real me.” Is he suggesting that the man who’s made £30 million from “being himself” is a con? “Yup.” Then who is the real you? “I’m not telling you,” he laughs.
His insistence on masks is repeated later on in the interview when he says ‘“We are who we were born and, bar some very early nurturing, that is set for the rest of our lives. Everything else is a mask.”’ This brag of insincerity is an uncomfortably similar sentiment to Savile’s soap metaphor. Clarkson performs sociopathy but at once negates any confusion that it is anything but a performance or a mask of who he really is. The old Top Gear excuse, as Stewart Lee has observed, is the ‘it’s only a joke’ caveat to any offensive remark—at once swerving responsibility whilst seeking to invalidate any offense caused. Clarkson’s ‘slope’ remark is a case in point. “while trying to build a bridge over the River Kwai in Thailand…Clarkson commented, when he saw someone walk across it, ‘“That is a proud moment … but there’s a slope on it.’” So too is his use of the ‘n-word’ when saying the Eeny Meeny Miney Moe rhyme (in other versions he plumped for ‘catch a teacher by his toe’).
However, there is a power and control dynamic at work here—like the bantering demi-bully who, when seeing he has pushed too far, instantly reneges any serious intent. Like a sociopathic child, constantly testing the boundaries of authority, there is a certain power-play. For the Times piece, Clarkson snapped his fingers and the interviewer flew to Barbados. In the next paragraph the interviewer describes how:
he has a hangover. He’s spent much of the day sitting on the bottom of the swimming pool with an oxygen tank, refusing to be coaxed up by a desperate scuba instructor, on the grounds that he wanted to drown out the world. “It was so nice and peaceful down there. Why would I want to come out?”
Clarkson’s lucrative brand of childlike petulance is impressed at other moments too. His status as an enfant terrible man-child is indelicately declared later in the interview with an outright lie. He tells the interviewer he has no pubes and that he only knew he went through puberty when his voice broke, but later confesses that he made this up. There is also a reference to his love of AA Milne, but his comment is so clichéd and vapid that this must be read as another insincere performance of his cheeky, childlike sociopath (“every character you’ll meet in life is a character from Winnie-the-Pooh: May is Wol [how Owl spells his name], Hammond is Piglet, I am Tigger”).
Clarkson’s offensive remarks are not ill-judged but exquisitely well judged flouts. Despite being laughed off or excused as harmless banter, as something not to be taken seriously, they are serious. These are not accidents but pre-meditated acts of insolence. Even when Clarkson falls foul of what is acceptable – even ‘as a joke’ – it is, rather implausibly, chalked up as a coincidence and he casually draws attention to his friendship with the Prime Minister:
While filming a Christmas special in 2014, they had to be evacuated from Argentina after his Porsche’s number plates (H982 FKL) were said to be a deliberately provocative reference to the Falklands conflict. (Clarkson denies this: “It was just an impossibility for us to have chosen that number plate on purpose. I drive thousands of cars a year; I never look at the registration.”)
The situation was so tense for the remaining crew—attempting to reach Chile cross-country—that Clarkson feared they’d be killed. “I rang [David] Cameron, who was out in Afghanistan. ‘Get someone over from the Falklands. You’ve got to help us out here, otherwise you’re going to have 40 dead English people.’ There were 40 stuck in that convoy. It was one of the most unpleasant nights of my life.”
There is also an aspect of Clarkson’s performed sociopathy that is much more like the self-depreciating buffoonery of Boris rather than the Savilesque kaleidoscope of lies and truth. Nonetheless, it is still obfuscatory. He plays up to and exaggerates his awkward appearance. Awkwardness, as I argue, is a low-level form of sociopathy. More than once on Top Gear he remarked, either via sarcasm or plain self-depreciation, about his ungainly physique. Again, some time is given to highlighting his clownish and clumsy physiognomy in the interview:
Clarkson is tall and misshapen with wire-wool hair and tobacco-stained teeth. With the possible exception of Wembley Fraggle, he looks like no one else. He likes to say he was made in God’s factory on a Friday evening, when all they had left was two good feet “and a pair of good buttocks. Look at these rubbish hands, this paunch, this hair.” Someone like Andrea Corr, he adds, was made on a Monday morning.
He claims to be utterly ham-fisted. “My first memory is peeling a hard-boiled egg. I was only about 18 months apparently, and it’s still the most practical thing I’ve ever done.
“As Hammond always says, I look like an orangutan when I’m presented with simple tasks, like opening a bottle of wine.
Clumsiness alone is not sociopathic—someone has to witness the awkward behaviour. Attention must be drawn to it; the performance must be seen. And this is precisely what Clarkson, like Boris, achieves. He makes sure he is seen as awkward, he works hard at being conspicuous.
These performances of sociopathy, the conspicuous flouting of social code that serves to mask the true self are the examples par excellence of virtuosic psychopathic performance. They show such sensitivity to social expectations and such ultra-reflexive self-awareness. They also show the nous and cunning to know that behaving normally isn’t always the best disguise, or advantageous. The performance of sociopathy is the psychopath’s double-bluff. Rather than conform to anonymity like Ripley and Bateman, they flout social expectations and hide in plain sight. Rather than being a super-social psychopath, these impostors masquerade as sociopaths.
Professional controversialist Toby Young has got himself all in a froth about a pink St George Cross at England’s international this week
Oh dear. Toby Young is all in a lather, a victim once more of the ‘PC brigade’.
Writing in the Daily Mail, he describes the scene he seems to have witnessed at Tuesday night’s England international versus the Netherlands. “It was fitting that Tuesday’s England match was awash with pink shirts, pink ribbons and pink flags. After all, football — along with rugby, cricket and every other traditionally male sport — has been forced to undergo what you might call, to borrow a fashionable phrase, gender re-assignment surgery in the past few years. An area of life that used to be associated with men has been colonised by women determined to prove a point about gender equality, regardless of whether they have any genuine interest in the sports in question.”
Oh dear, the thinking-bloke’s Jeremy Clarkson really has his boxer shorts in a twist hasn’t he? I have a confession to make to Toby. I’d spent most of Tuesday afternoon laying out thousands of cards across the England home end in the stadium. It’s a fan-led initiative called ‘Raise the Flag’, and when God Save the Queen strikes up they’re held up to form a huge St George Cross flag, mosaic-style. Except this time, when the anthem came to an end, the red cross was flipped to form a pink one, honouring the victims and survivors of this most deadly of diseases, breast cancer. I’m not sure where Toby was sitting in the stands but where I was there wasn’t one murmur of discontent but, rather, a ‘wow moment’ and widespread approval. Then the game kicked off; what Toby fails entirely to mention was what happened at the 14th minute, the entire crowd – English and Dutch – standing to honour the memory of Johan Cruyff. The cancer that killed Johan attacked his lungs, not his breasts – same disease, different body parts.
Toby sees political correctness almost everywhere, a phantom stalking this most illiberal of lands. Now, in his view, its got a grip on sport, or more particularly, Toby’s very particular version of a masculinity epitomised by football . When I lay out a St George Cross before each and every England game, be it red, pink or any other colour under the rainbow I don’t see a symbol of nationalism or politics, correct or otherwise. Rather I see a flag made up of thousands of individual fans holding up a huge vision of human solidarity. A fans’ flag, it belongs to all of us, not Toby, not me, all of us. I’m not sure if Toby was at Wembley last November, I certainly don’t remember him writing about the huge flag we held up that night. Not St George, but the French Tricolour, solidarity once more, this time with the victims of the terror attack on Paris , including the Stade de France, a few days earlier. Was that ‘political correctness gone mad’ Toby? Or was it simply a symbol of borders not meaning very much when as fans we are all united against the bloody terrorism of ISIS and their off-shoots?
Toby’s main point seems to be that he thinks breast cancer has nothing to do with football. A game increasingly played by women, in which the England women’s team beat Germany a year ago – not in a meaningless friendly but in a World Cup. This seems to have gone unnoticed by Toby. Nor does he seem much bothered that many of us blokes will have mums, grannies, aunties, sisters, nieces, girlfriends, daughters, neighbours, friends and workmates who suffer from this most gendered of diseases (although, its worth noting that 330 men a year are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK too). It’s called caring about others, Toby. Isn’t that something we should all stand, cheer, have some pride in, whatever our team?
Football is never going to change the world. That’s not its place, an England team that can stick it out at the Euros to the quarters or beyond is about as much as most of us can hope for. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a space, on the pitch and in the stands, where ideas aren’t offered and contested. Toby would prefer a world of football unchanged from that golden 1966 summer 50 years ago, where men were men and women knew their place. I prefer instead a football that at least tries to keep up with, if not always change with, the times. An England for all, whatever our colour, gender or sexuality; faith or none; whatever the country we or our parents originally came from. This – the single biggest change in what an England team looks like, is supported by Tuesday night’s team on the pitch: once more – Sturridge, Alli, Rose, Smalling, Clyne and more. Gender diversity on the pitch is is perhaps a bit further off. But male fans standing up to show they care about breast cancer – that’s the kind of England crowd I want to be part of, even if Toby doesn’t, thank you very much.
Who dares dissent from the gospel according to Silicon Valley? There is – we are insistently told – no alternative to the invasion of capitalist cyberspace into all areas of consciousness and culture. Anyone who expresses even the mildest scepticism about social media and smartphones is roundly denounced as nostalgic. The old, desperate not to seem out of touch, rarely dare question the young’s compulsive attachment to their smartphones. Anti-capitalists join with
tycoons to celebrate the potentials of network society. In article after article, conference after conference, the “new” is routinely equated with “the digital”, to such an extent that is now difficult to remember a time when “technology” wasn’t a shorthand for communicative software. When mobile phones entered the marketplace, they were the object of mockery: who could be so self-important as to believe that they needed to be contactable everywhere and anywhere? Now, everyone is required to act like some cross between a hustler always on the make and an addict jonesing for contact.
But how has this model of progress, in which history culminates in the glorious invention of iPhones and apps, become so uncontested? And, if we attend closely, isn’t there a desperate quality to all this cheerleading? Addicts always rationalise their compulsions, but the desperation here belongs to capital itself, which has thrown everything at the great digital swindle. Capital might still swagger like some data cowboy, but iPhones plus Victorian values can only be a steampunk throwback. The return to centuries’ old forms of exploitation is obfuscated by the distracting urgencies of digital communication.
What if Silicon Valley was not – as we are relentlessly hectored to believe – a stupendous success story but a massive monument to failure? In Defence of Serendipity encourages us to pose this counter-intuitive question. Sebastian Olma demonstrates that neoliberal capitalism has systematically destroyed the conditions which allowed Silicon Valley to emerge, at the very same time as it pimps 70s California as the definitive model for all cultural as well as business innovation. In Olma’s narrative, Steve Jobs and the other Californian oligarchs come to seem like the hapless figures from a fairy tale. They wished to totally transform the world, but instead they received unimaginable wealth. Their devices only led to more of the same: the ‘changeless change’ of a capitalism that endlessly crows about innovation in a manic attempt to cover over the glacial monotony of its homogeneity and repetitiveness. The Silicon Valley princes provided capital with new tools of capture and captivation. More than that, they gave capital a new hymn sheet, a way to sell drudgery as creativity and hyper-exploitation as sharing, so that we are all expected to be “passionate” about our cyber-serfery.
It is by now screamingly clear that innovation does not spontaneously effloresce when capital dominates society and culture. Generalised insecurity leads to sterility and repetition, not surprise and innovation. The conditions in which the new can appear have to be produced and nurtured. This, Sebastian Olma demonstrates, is the real import of the concept of serendipity when it is properly understood. The irony of Silicon Valley is that its very hegemonic dominion has contributed to the disappearance of such conditions in the capitalist world. Silicon Valley emerged from the serendipitious synthesis of the counterculture and state-sponsored cybernetics, but neoliberal capital has destroyed the possibility of a counterculture even as it has annexed and subdued the state. In Defence of Serendipity shows that that the real future is building itself beyond the instrumentalising urgencies of business, in the spaces between a new bohemia and a revived public sphere.