The election of Trump has already produced a tsunami of commentary and analysis. E-mail correspondence with a New York academic showed the sense of shame and embarrassment, turning to outrage, that liberals there are feeling.
There is already a consensus which focuses on disempowered, misogynist white men, on racist provincial America, on the rust belt victims of the neo-liberal project having their revenge, on the divide between urban liberal and rural deplorable, on the political, business and media elites being given the fingers – all of which have their point. But I return to a prophetic 1979 essay by the English cultural historian, Raymond Williams, who is a guru of mine.
In the essay Williams described current Western society as dominated by a feeling of widespread loss of the future. It is a society in which danger and conflict, shock and loss prevail. ‘Managed affluence,’ he wrote, ‘has slid into an anxiously managed but perhaps unmanageable depression.’ Social consensus has broken down. The balance of terror is still there and ‘even more terrifying.’
Yet, Williams, noted, these rhythms are familiar in history and can be traced ‘to a dying social order and a dying class.’ This explains the flow of nostalgia for a happier time and the increasing violence of the forces of order (the militarisation of the US police force is truly terrifying).
Williams wrote that when a social order is dying it grieves for itself, and that while obviously dying, it nevertheless still exercises its power and influence. We also discover that we are more incorporated than we might think into the deepest structures of this dying order. It’s a bit like being at the bedside of a despised and terminally ill parent. As well, there will be a breaking point and we have to carefully assess the pain of ‘any central disintegration’. What will happen if the education, justice and health systems break down? So, this re-ordering that has to take place will be painful as well as liberating.
He talked of the difficult relations that already existed between a generation ‘that seems and really is tired’ and a younger generation ’that seems and really is inexperienced.’
He had already picked up on the focus of the young on ‘the destructive personal and sexual conflicts’ experienced via family, and seen as private tragedies lived under the old order.
He also foresaw the system’s ability to convert disturbance to ’private insult and perverse exposure’ and to use degradation as a means ‘to control and divert’, providing a pastime ‘for calloused nerves.’ There was, as well, a tendency by the more privileged to play ‘wry and doomed games’ with the situation (see much ‘modern’ art).
It was, and continues to be, a world which produces ‘a hurt so deep it requires new hurting’, and a sense of outrage ‘which demands people be outraged.’
For me, it describes the election and Donald Trump remarkably well. Will his reign be ‘the last cries of a dying world overwhelmed by convictions of insignificance and of guilt’?
And how to react? For Williams, the task (and only hope) is to connect and dramatise, past, present and future struggles.
To cap it all, the earth shook us around last night and a real tsunami threatened.
I’m privileged enough to be able to forget it all and go cycling for a couple of weeks, attending a National Film Unit reunion and visit a couple of aging relatives.