Idea for an Alternate History

The so-called culture wars have a tendency to map all debates into two pre-existing camps: us and them. This can result in certain positions becoming associated with one side or the other in a way that seems almost arbitrary. (Why, for instance, would we associate concern about the environment more with social liberalism than with social conservatism?)

This polarising tendency appears to be particularly pronounced in America but my sense is that it is more pronounced in Britain than in other European countries. If this is true, I wonder whether it is a product in part of ‘first past the post’ electoral systems which tend to result in a competition for power between two dominant parties, and make it hard for third parties to make headway? (Isn’t that what we mean by ‘culture wars’: the intellectual equivalent of an adversarial two-party system?)

Anyway, I think it may be partly as a result of this kind of binary thinking, that Liberalish, Remainish people often lump the Brexit vote together with the election of Trump, as if they were exactly the same phenomenon. (They’re both ‘them’ things, and therefore they are essentially the same). This is understandable but lazy. Of course there are large overlaps, but there were people who voted for Brexit who wouldn’t have dreamed of voting for Trump, and there were reasons for voting Brexit that had nothing to do with Trump-style nationalism.

So much of politics is about projection. ‘We’ project things we don’t like onto ‘them’ and mock the things they value, while projecting everything all that is good and virtuous onto the things we do value. Indeed the very fact that ‘they’ despise something, makes us value it even more, to the point of uncritical idealisation.

A narrative emerged among some Remainers, for instance, in which they mocked or condemned patriotism but declared themselves proud Europeans, while among some Leavers the opposite was often the case. But is there any moral difference between identifying with a country and identifying with a continent? (If there is, what exactly is the the land area required for identification with a piece of territory to become virtuous?)

Breaking away from larger entities, defending the integrity of large entities, and joining together to form larger entities are all quite common political processes. They can all be presented as progress, and can all in different circumstances be associated with political positions that may be described as left-wing, right-wing or neither.

I find myself imagining a parallel timeline where it’s the right-wingers who are the biggest fans of the European project, because they want to enhance and perpetuate the global power of the wealthy, developed, culturally Christian countries that once divided the world between them. and it’s the fascists in particular who want to unite the ancestral homeland of the white race into a single giant state. (The lefties in this universe, I decided, would be advocates for organisations such as the Commonwealth or the Francophonie that build links between countries across the global North-South divide.)

If you imagine something that seems plausible, I’ve discovered, it sometimes turns out to already exist. (I didn’t know that ‘rogue planets‘ were really a thing, for instance, until after I’d invented one for a story.) After writing the above, I learned that the British Fascist leader, Oswald Mosley, did indeed advocate uniting Europe into a single state.

Utopia can wait

Two kinds of statement seem to come from the more radical wing of climate change activists:

(1) Unless we end greenhouse gas emissions in the next few years it will be too late and we will see a catastrophic collapse of civilisation and of the biosphere,

(2) We will only end greenhouse gas emissions if we completely get rid of the present capitalist political/economic system.

While I accept the possibility that both these statements may be true, I really hope they’re not, because there is absolutely no way that a completely new and fully functional political and economic system is going to be constructed in the next few years.

I mean, it’s not even as if we have blueprint of how such a system might work. You can’t just say you want ‘a society that values people more than profits’, or ‘a society that lives in harmony with nature’, and call that a plan! How are resources going to be distributed? Who is going to be in charge? (Oh, the people are going to be in charge are they? Is that the same ‘people’ who voted for the governments you say aren’t doing enough?) What is going to prevent the pursuit of short term gains that lead to long term harm? What incentives for work are there going to be? What is going to prevent the system being hijacked by its own elites, like Communism was? etc etc.

Lots of different kinds of people have their place of course, and this may in part be a matter of temperament, but speaking for myself, I am much less impressed, when it comes to combating climate change, by radical heroics than I am by meticulous practical work. XR cofounder, Roger Hallam, apparently thinks that nothing will change without a major insurrection that leads to large number of activists going to prison. I can’t see myself that large numbers of people being sent to prison will necessarily have the desired effect. I can imagine all sorts of possible consequences of insurrections of that kind, including the rise of brutal authoritarian governments with no interest in climate change at all.

Remember that Lenin believed he was leading the Russian working class on the fastest route to socialism – and that Russia ended up with petro-capitalism and Putin.

Personally I’d rather see large numbers of people working on problems such as mass energy storage, affordable green fuels, and carbon neutral cement. It’s solving problems like these -and the political and business headaches that come with them – that’s going to stop climate catastrophe. Utopia can wait.

Lorry Drivers

I heard a news item on the radio last week about the department store chain, John Lewis, getting ready for Christmas. It concluded with a reassurance from John Lewis that there would be no shortage of lorry drivers because they had put up lorry drivers’ pay and were busy recruiting. In fact, they have put up pay by £5,000. Many other chain stores have done the same.

The current shortage of lorry drivers in the UK is due in part to Covid, but there seems to be general agreement that Brexit is also a factor, because it means that companies can no longer recruit drivers from other parts of Europe.

I’ve seen this presented in Remainer contexts as another example of how bad Brexit is, but if I was a lorry driver who’d voted for Brexit, I wouldn’t take that view. I’d see it an example of Brexit helping me, just as I’d hoped, and I’d be pleased. Driving lorries isn’t an easy job, and up to now it hasn’t been particularly well paid. £5,000 a year is a big raise.

And, if I was lorry driver who’d argued in the past that companies were holding wages down by bringing in workers from poorer parts of Europe, I’d be angry. I’d be angry that up to now I’d been told that this was a myth put about by racists and xenophobes.

A very Remainer friend of mine once said that Brexit would be bad because we’d no longer have access to all these excellent plumbers and cleaners from Eastern Europe. Bad for the cleaner- and plumber-using classes perhaps, was my thought at the time, but not necessarily bad for the cleaning and plumbing classes.

What next?

Although the current Corvus version of The Holy Machine was published in 2010, I actually wrote it in the mid-nineties. The backdrop for the book is a global phenomenon called The Reaction, in which people all over the world, alienated by liberal, secular, scientific modernism, have reverted, violently, to older religious ways of seeing the world. (I had watched the Iranian revolution and I thought something similar might happen in the West.) In the world of the story, the old liberal order has been overthrown and replaced by theocracy in most countries, including Britain and America. Among others, scientists of any kind are actively persecuted.

(My second novel, Marcher, had a similar theme, though here I described a threat to modernity posed by pagan intruders from other dimensions, whose desire to take the world back to the age of the Vikings had a strong appeal among those on the margins of society. The short story, ‘To Become a Warrior‘ was a precursor of this novel).

In a way, I was proved right. The real Reaction is much more complex and varied than my fictional one -among other things, it was naive of me to think that fundamentalist theocratic regimes would not be perfectly happy to make use of science when it suited them- but it has happened (or would it be more accurate to say, ‘it has begun’?) We’ve seen a shift away from secularism in Palestine, Israel, India, Turkey, America, and the rise of Hindu nationalism, Islamism and Christian fundamentalism. We’ve experienced the phenomenon of Trump, and so-called populism in many countries (a rather vague word, but it seems to mean a kind of politics that privileges the values of the general public over those of the most educated section of the population). And, while scientists are not (yet) actively being persecuted in the way described in the book, there is a distinct anti-science strand in all this: anti-vaxxers, creationists, climate change denialists are all part of it.

Continue reading “What next?”

It’s still happening

I have no problem with the statue of Edward Colston being rolled into Bristol harbour, or with the removal of statues of Cecil Rhodes, who did so much to extend and cement white supremacy in Southern Africa. But I’m curious as to why so much more heat seems to be generated by colonialism and slavery in the past than by colonialism and slavery that is still going on in the present.

There are creditable reports that a million members of the Uighur minority in China are being held in concentration camps. (If the figure is accurate that would amount to about 8% of the entire Uighur population of China). A leaked Chinese government memo gives orders that the camps should:

  • “Never allow escapes”
  • “Increase discipline and punishment of behavioural violations”
  • “Promote repentance and confession”
  • “Make remedial Mandarin studies the top priority”
  • “Encourage students to truly transform”
  • “[Ensure] full video surveillance coverage of dormitories and classrooms free of blind spots”

There are also reports of enforced pregnancy tests, interuterine devices, and sterilisation of Uighur women, with the aim of reducing the Uighur population, and the threat of being detained in internment camps for non-compliance. Up to half a million children may have been removed from their parents and placed in state boarding schools. There are persistent allegations that Uighurs and other minorities being used as a source of organs for transplant, extracted by force, and sometimes resulting in the donor’s death. The BBC has published reports of systematic rape taking place in the camps, as well as torture.

And there are reports too of forced Uighur labour being used in factories that export goods to the west and that famous brands such as Apple, Nike and Adidas are using suppliers which are implicated in this form of slavery.

The slavery in the Americas and the Caribbean that ended in the nineteenth century was sustained not just by slave-traders and plantation owners, but also by the consumers who continued to buy products such as sugar and cotton that were harvested by enslaved people. We wonder now how people could have sweetened their coffee with sugar they knew to be harvested by slaves, or put on beautiful clothes made from cotton that slaves had picked under the lash, but it looks like we are doing essentially the same thing now. I daresay even some of those who pulled down the statue of Edward Colston owned an Apple phone (as I do myself) or were wearing Nike or Adidas shoes.

Easier perhaps for us to be outraged about injustices in which we were not personally implicated than to recognise our complicity in oppression that is happening now.

‘Flags’

Richard Dawkins observed that every religious person is an atheist with respect to every belief system except their own. One could quibble with that, one could point out that, if we are to agree that this is so, his own particular conception of ‘atheism’ would need to be added to the list. But the point I want to make just now is that the same is true in politics.

Religious belief is not for most people a matter of free choice, but is closely tied to geography and to heritage. Go to rural Morocco, and you won’t find many Protestants but you will find plenty of people who sincerely believe in Islam. Go to the American Midwest and the reverse is true. Even when people consciously move away from the religion of their ancestors, they tend to do so as a group.

Support for different political ideas is also not randomly distributed across the country. There are Labour areas, Tory areas, and Liberal and nationalist areas, and there are also Leave and Remain areas. Below is the referendum result map for the East of England where I live. (Pretty solidly Leave except for the small Remain island of Norwich and the larger Remain island stretching south from Cambridge.)

EU referendum results from the East of England. Blue is Leave, orange is Remain. Sourced from Wikiwand here.

I see politics as consisting of two levels. In its essentials it is the process by which different classes and groups in society jockey for position, with each class or group seeking to defend what its has and, if possible, improve what it has. However most human beings like to see themselves as good, and so every group likes to have a reason why its demands are not in fact self-interested but in the interests of everyone (and usually there is at least an element of truth in the claim). As I think of it to myself, each group flies a flag.

And, just as we see through every religion but our own, so we tend to assume that the flags flown by rival groups are either the product of delusion, or a cover for self-interest, but take our own flags at face value, and find it difficult to accept that we too might be deluded, or that we too might have chosen a particular flag because it justifies our own self-interest. Many Remain voters, for instance, argue ‘we must be right because we are clever and well-educated’, without recognising that clever and well-educated people have their own particular interests as a class.

The main protagonist of Two Tribes is a man, Harry, who, in the latter half of 2016 notices that his own group’s flag is, after all, just one of several flags. He doesn’t reject it, but he becomes suspicious of the claims his friends make for it. He meets a woman, Michelle, who, so to speak, lives under the enemy flag. Both of them are intrigued by this because in other respects they like each other very much.

The story is told by another woman, Zoe, who lives two and half centuries away in the future. The flags of 2016 are not quite as remote to her as, say, Yorkists and Lancastrians are to us, because they still have counterparts in her world. But she knows things that we don’t know about the way that the culture wars of the twenty-first century played out, and she looks back at the period in a way that isn’t really aligned with either the Remainer or the Leaver camp.

More on Two Tribes here.

It’s not my job to exaggerate the ugliness of rival tribes

I am a slow learner. It was something of a revelation when I found out that the stories about the knights of the Round Table I enjoyed as a child were actually written for real knights, and that these real knights were not necessarily very nice people at all. (One of the sources of the Grail story, for instance, The High Book of the Grail, is dedicated to a knight who was a leading figure in two notorious bloodbaths: the Fourth Crusade against Constantinople, and the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars in the south of France.) It struck me then that most fiction is actually written to flatter its readers by making them, or people like them, the heroes of the story.

When it comes to Brexit it would have been an easy matter for me, as a ‘remain’ voter who writes science fiction, to do something of that kind. I could, for instance, have written a future dystopia, in which a ghastly caricature of the ‘leave’ camp is in charge, and noble, liberal, internationalist types are fighting a brave war of resistance. I’m pretty sure a lot of people would have welcomed it.

But I don’t think it’s my job to exaggerate the ugliness of rival tribes, or big up the heroism of my own. If you want a simple ‘goodies versus baddies’ view of events, you can find it on social media, where whole armies of people are busy, night and day, proving how utterly and irredeemably bad those others are, and how very good they are. I’m sure this serves some useful psychological purpose, but it really isn’t my thing.

I don’t deny that there are bad people out there. And some of the nastiest and most mean-spirited aspects of British culture were certainly evident on the ‘leave’ side. But an exclusive focus on the shortcomings of others does tend to blind us to our own, and what I noticed in aftermath of the 2016 referendum was that, on the ‘remain’ side too, some pretty ugly things were crawling out of the shadows. Specifically I noticed the spread of a phenomenon which I’ve been observing for some time: middle class folk who, while describing themselves as on ‘the left’, somehow still feel free to express a sneering contempt for people less clever or less educated than themselves.

I say ‘ugly’, I say ‘nasty’, but the truth is that human beings are human, whatever tribe they belong to, and my objective, as in my other books –America City is probably the closest- was to write a story that looked at this particular time, not through the lens of ‘them and us’ but simply as human beings responding in different ways to their particular circumstances, as humans beings do.

Two Tribes cover image

Different allegiances

Six boxes of hardback copies of Two Tribes have arrived for me to sign for those who like collecting signed new editions. (If that’s your thing and you want one, you can preorder from Goldsboro).

The book will be out on July 2nd in hardback and as an ebook.

Most of it isn’t science fictional at all, but is set in London and Norfolk in the latter part of 2016 and early 2017. But the framing device is science fictional. The narrator is 250 years in the future, constructing the story from diaries and other sources, and giving herself a fair amount of license to guess things, or even make things up.

The story itself deals mainly with an architect called Harry who has recently separated from his wife and lives in London, and a hairdresser called Michelle who lives in a small Norfolk town called Breckham, and an unlikely and unexpected relationship between them.

The thing that prompted this book -or one of the things anyway- was a map of the results of the 2016 EU referendum, as they applied to East Anglia where I live. The whole region was a sea of ‘Leave’ but I happen to live in Cambridge, which was not only one of two islands of ‘remain’ in East Anglia (the other was Norwich), but the remainiest place in the entire country (75% remain). Yet an hour’s drive away, and in the same county of Cambridgeshire, Fenland was one of the leaviest (71% leave).

I voted remain, and have always had a warm feeling for the whole European project, so I was very saddened by the referendum result, but I thought to myself, how would it be if instead of looking at all this as me living in an island of correctness in a sea of error, or an island of decency in a sea of intolerance, I was to look at it more in the way that, say, an outsider looks at the political geography of Belfast.

Some areas of that city are strongly and publicly unionist, others are equally strongly and publicly nationalist, but from an outsider’s perspective this is not one group of people who are right and decent, and another who are wrong and bad, but rather two tribes, who have been brought up to have different allegiances, and have learned to see the same question in an entirely different way.

I think that’s how the great Brexit divide will look in a couple of hundred years for, after a certain point, when we look at the conflicts of the past, the issues being fought over lose their heat. And that’s the kind of perspective I tried to write from in this book.

In the case of the Brexit vote, there are factors apart from geography that inclined people to vote one way or another, and in particular I was struck by the fact that the ‘leave’ vote was proportionately higher in poorer areas of England (Scotland is different because Scots have the SNP) and in the poorer socioeconomic classes. (Cambridge is not only the remainiest but also one of the very richest parts of the UK.) So, as well as the two tribes of ‘remain’ and ‘leave’, I was thinking when I wrote this book of the two tribes that are middle-class people (and specifically the liberal professional middle classes of which I am undoubtedly a part) and working class people.

Being middle class is definitely one of my topics at the moment. I touched on it in America City, and also in Beneath the World, a Sea, and it continues to be a theme in the book I’m writing now. Most novelists are written by middle class people (or arguably all, since being a writer might itself be defined as a typically professional middle class occupation). As a rule that fact is simply a given, the base from which other topics are looked at, rather than as a thing to be examined in itself. But that’s what I’ve tried to do here.

Needless to say, I was also thinking about Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

Belief

If you subscribe to a belief, certain thoughts become unthinkable. So, for instance, if you subscribe to a belief in socialism, and you are presented with the various historical examples of socialism failing to deliver, you have to conclude that it just wasn’t done right, or was done in the wrong circumstances, and needs to be tried again, because the conclusion that socialism doesn’t work isn’t available to you. (Feel free to substitute laissez faire capitalism in that example: it is equally applicable). In the same way, if you believe that a loving and omnipotent god created the world, you have somehow to find ways of explaining the existence of (for example) agonising and degrading diseases that are consistent with such a god, because the much simpler explanations available to an atheist aren’t on your list of options.

Belief results in a certain inflexibility, in other words.

But belief is nevertheless essential to life. For one thing, we have to make decisions all the time in situations where there isn’t enough exact information to be certain of what the outcomes will be (this is true of almost all political decisions and all but trivial personal ones), or where the judgement to be made involves values (again true of most political and personal decisions). Without beliefs we’d have nothing to guide us.

The inflexibility of belief, while sometimes a problem, is also the key to its usefulness. It allows us to set or harden things that would otherwise be fluid. In order to be able to think about ourselves as coherent human individuals, and not just a bundle of impulses, we have to ‘keep faith’ with decisions already made. Marriage, for instance, involves keeping faith with the idea that you love someone and belong with them, even through times when you don’t actually feel love and aren’t enjoying being together. In other words you have to believe that what you felt in the past was real, even when it doesn’t seem so now, and you have to believe that you will feel it again. And the same applies to other kinds of commitments: an example in my case would be the writing of a book, which would never get done if I didn’t force myself to keep plugging on through long periods when I felt almost certain that the whole project was worthless, and that I nothing left to say.

Faith, in this sense, is a kind of belief that allows us to tie together the past, the present and the future, even though all we can ever actually directly know is the present. I think of it as a kind of human chain, such as might be used to rescue people from a shipwreck, except that this chain is made up, not of different individuals, but of different iterations of the same individual. For someone prone to self-doubt and mood swings, such as myself, holding hands with your past and future selves can be pretty challenging. (My wife would vouch that I can easily move in a single day between cheerful optimism to existential despair, and sometimes find it hard to give any credence to my former self of only a few hours ago.)

I hate to admit it, but I suppose what I’m talking about now is the kind of belief that’s referred to in a thousand cringy Hollywood movies when one character tells another ‘you’ve got to believe in yourself’ or ‘if only you believe in yourself anything is possible’. Clearly the latter is a lazy cliche: no amount of self-belief will make me (say) a premier league footballer. But it is true that you do need to believe in your ‘self’ in order to be able to achieve anything substantial, because unless you believe in a coherent self that is continuous over time, it is impossible to commit yourself to the work involved.

Your ‘self’ is, in fact, just a particular example of a whole class of entities that are necessary in order to function in society, but which owe their existence to belief. A nation is such an entity. Benedict Anderson famously described a nation as an ‘imagined community’. This is not the same thing as an imaginary community, because an imagined community really does exist. It’s just that it only functions because it is imagined. And imagination in this sense is closely related to belief. Believing in oneself and believing in a nation both entail being able to imagine a connection with a bunch of people you can’t actually see and can’t directly know: in one case these people are your future selves, in the other, compatriots you’ve never met.

Recent divisions in the UK are characterised by some as a rift between the blind belief of the ignorant and the rational evidence-based thinking of the educated (I’ve seen this thought expressed earlier today on social media). But actually both sides are sustained by beliefs in imagined communities. It’s just unfortunate that they aren’t the same ones. ‘I am a European first and foremost’ is resonant for some, ‘I am English [or British, or Scottish, etc] first and foremost’ is resonant for others. Some, I know, even combine both. For many only one of these statements is real and the other is simply a fabrication. But these are all statements of belief, elements of the stories that we choose to live by, not facts that can be objectively verified.

Politics

Politics isn’t really about personalities. They’re just the puppet show. And politics isn’t really about ideas either, or not in the way some people seem to think. It’s about alliances. It’s about putting together coalitions of different classes or interest groups. Each group has its own ideas, its own story it tells itself, and the trick is to find some overarching idea or story which connects with enough of these different stories to allow a variety of groups to buy into it.

Historically in Britain, the Labour Party managed to be the titular party of the industrial working class but also the party of an important section of the professional middle classes, the delicado class as I have called them*. (The Democratic Party in America managed a similar alliance in the twentieth century, though it has presided over many different groupings in its two hundred year history). This is not to say that the delicados and the industrial working class see the world in the same way -they obviously don’t- or that they have the same priorities or the same values, but they had enough common interests and common enemies to make it possible to construct a story that both could buy into. It was a story, I suppose, about using the state to make society fairer, and to reduce the power of inherited privilege, which had an appeal to both these groups, though for different reasons.

I would say the last flowering of this alliance in the case of the Labour Party was the Blair era. Blair was able to draw in a substantial number of new middle class voters who had previously voted Tory, while still retaining the traditional industrial working class vote. (My feeling is that he didn’t actually earn the latter, but was able to benefit from historical loyalties which had yet to fade.)

I think recent electoral politics in Britain have shown that this old alliance no longer holds. In Scotland, Labour has been displaced as the dominant party by the SNP (I don’t know enough about Scotland to understand the alliance which this represents, but clearly it has drawn support from both of Labour’s traditional constituencies). In England, the Brexit vote and the recent election show that Labour can no longer take for granted the support of the voters it was originally set up to represent. The Conservatives have managed to find a story -and like the SNP’s, it is a story about nationhood and independence- which suits many of these voters better. A new alliance is forming between the non-delicado section of the middle class, and the old working class.

If we see politics as just being about ideas, and we are convinced that our idea is simply ‘right’ (as opposed to being the story our particular grouping prefers), we don’t respond effectively to the loss of an ally, because we conclude that our former ally is mistaken, or misled, or no longer worthy of us. And so we keep plugging away at the same idea, waiting for others to see the error of their ways, when the fact is that our story simply doesn’t appeal to enough people. No group can expect to have things exactly the way it wants. We need a new idea.

It seems to me that the political ‘right’ (I actually hate the lazy simplification that divides politics into ‘the Left’ and ‘the Right’ but I’ll use it here for brevity), understands this at the moment better than the political ‘left’. You need to find out what different sections of the population want, not just in a practical sense (jobs, public services etc), important though that is, but in the sense of symbols and stories, and you have to deliver enough of what people want to make them feel like joining, or remaining part of, your alliance.

*See America City.