I don’t always like being proved right. When I wrote about hope earlier this week, there was still a little part of me that thought I might be proved wrong and things might turn around. Our politicians might all have suddenly been infected by a desire to spell out positive visions for the future, but sadly the virus that does that doesn’t exist in our universe as yet, and all we get is the drab and the banal.
Yet again, we got more slogans to add to what sounds like an attempt by a particularly uninspired management training weekend to come up with the most generic slogans possible, things that are too bland to be included in mission statements. ‘Finish the job and finish it fairly’ is the latest attempt at non-differentiation from people who’d advertise tea by claiming it was less caffeine than coffee, but more taste than water. If all you can do to distinguish yourself is claiming ‘slightly different than X and Y, but not by too much!’ then is it any wonder no one wants to pay attention to you?
That’s why we end up with headlines like this. Look, I know the Important And Serious People who write newspaper columns and hang around the Westminster lobby like nothing more than to talk about the deficit and the minutiae of post-election taxation rates, but “Lib Dems propose £8bn in tax rises to reduce deficit” is not a message to excite or motivate anyone. Rather than promising a better nation, it’s merely asking people to work as though they were in the early days of a better budget strategy. It’s expecting people to be somehow inspired by the rhetoric of managerialism, despite all the evidence suggesting that it’s the last thing that inspires people. People like to leave work behind at the end of the day, and a politics that represents all the worst of it isn’t going to inspire anyone.
I’m not going to claim that previous Lib Dem general election campaigns were examples of unalloyed genius in political campaigning, but they at least gave people something positive to latch on to as a promise of better days to come. Now, there’s no one doing that, and instead the election is threatening to turn into a series of dull people reading out PowerPoint slides comprised entirely of the dullest buzzwords possible, then wondering why all the audience has slipped out to go to the pub.
The ruling New Democracy party is still wondering how its platform of Endless Suffering For Everyone was defeated by Syriza’s competing message of Maybe Not That.
Yes, it’s from the Mash, but as so often one line of satire gets closer to the truth than thousands of pieces of punditry. When traditional politics and traditional parties neglect to offer a positive vision of the future, there’s a natural appeal to anyone who can offer something that resembles a vision. Even if it’s just ‘Maybe Not That’, it’s much more appealing than offering people nothing more than the status quo, perhaps with slightly better gadgets.
This links to what I was saying yesterday – if all that mainstream politics can offer is a red, blue or yellow-tinged version of the elite consensus, and that consensus doesn’t offer a positive vision of the future, then why are we surprised that people are looking for alternatives?
What we don’t have, and what no one seems to be offering in the upcoming election, is a positive vision of the future. David Cameron has been touting the ultimate uninspiring managerialist vision of ‘Britain living within its means’, while Ed Miliband offers ‘maybe that, but not quite that’ and Nick Clegg promises ‘that or that, but perhaps slightly less of it’. Meanwhile, when confronted with any vision of the future, Nigel Farage runs screaming to the past and while the Greens at least acknowledge the future is likely to be radically different, their vision for it is short of hope.
We used to dream about the future. Yes, there were things in those dreams that were never going to happen like flying cars, jet packs and double-digit Jaws sequels, but there was hope in those visions. We had futures where the whole wealth of world knowledge was at our fingertips, instant worldwide communication was simple and the need to work was reduced or even eliminated by robotics and automation. We’ve got those, but the world we live in now resembles a cyberpunk dystopia rather than the utopian dreams of the future we had.
What we need is to reclaim and reinvent the idea that the future can be better and different than today. Our politics and culture aren’t offering that vision anymore, instead retreating into expecting tomorrow to look much like today and offering purely managerial solutions to try and keep things running much the way they have been. The problem, I think, is that even if people can’t articulate it, they know that vision doesn’t work. It might not be as obvious in Britain as it is in somewhere like Greece or Spain, but keeping things the same equates to keeping everyone at the same level of insecurity they’re already feeling. That’s not a future anyone would want to sign up for. Merely offering people endless workism from now until the end of time isn’t a vision, it’s a punishment for sins we never committed.
This is why I think ideas like basic income are important. As Paul Mason explains here, it’s too often seen through the prism of our current system, not as a transformative idea that would change the way our society works. It’s getting back to those old visions of the future, where technology has made fulfilling our basic needs – food, clothing, shelter, heat, light – such a simple task that they’re available to everyone without question or effort, just something you get by dint of being you. Instead, we often end up discussing it in terms of how we’d implement it through current systems as though they’re the only way of doing things.
The future doesn’t have to be about basic income, but I think there is a yearning out there for someone, be it politician or artist, who can provide a vision of something different and better, a future that we hope will come about, not one that we dread finally coming to pass. We have occasional moments when we recognise the importance of hope – even the audacity of it – but then we forget about it, or think that what people hope for is more management and more targets to regulate their lives. That might be some people’s vision of the future – a human finger, clicking off the items on an assessment checklist, forever – but surely we can come up with something better?