Some things are just really hard to love, even though you’re supposed to. Most turn up at Christmas. Racist relatives, scented soaps, the Queen’s speech, Brussels sprouts. And then, especially in January, the hardest thing to love is your reflection.
If we were happy narcissists, in love with our reflections, Instagram and TikTok wouldn’t have filters. Reflecting is hard. It gets easier with age, not because we’re any less painful to look at, we’ve just got more to look back on than forward to.
New Years, like funerals and waking up handcuffed to a strange bed next to a dead body you’ve never seen before with a bag of Nicaraguan fairy dust tucked in your knickers, is an apt time to reflect.
Is reflection, the examined life, a meme? Most sentient creatures learn from their mistakes so it seems instinctive, nature rather than nurture. But, with language capable of communicating extraordinarily complex notions, humans, almost uniquely, can learn from each others’ mistakes. I say, “can” because if there’s anything the last few years have taught us, with the rise of populist leaders and science scepticism, we clearly consider it optional.
But, here we are on the brink of 2021, of Brexit and, apparently, the resurgence of the American Civil War; along, pretty much, the same geographical and ideological battle lines. The big reflective question is. How on earth did we get here?
It’s twenty years since the event that kicked off post-modern history: 9/11. When we watched the planes disintegrate into the towers, everyone knew it would change the world, we just weren’t sure how. An inkwell of writers speculated, but only now does it seem possible to piece things together in a string of, what seems, almost inevitable events. It’s a story about two whopping lies and why losers matter more than winners. It starts with the end of history.
As the last century drew to a close, Liberals were convinced that they’d won the political ideological argument. Francis Fukuyama wrote assuredly, in The End of History (1992), that, following the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union, humanity was reaching “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”. But with capitalism underwriting this system, that confidence now seems painfully, naively, blind to the billions of pesky losers, the poor people left behind or slaving in the sweatshops of globalised consumerism. Being moderate and, superficially, universal, Liberals believed they had solved the age-old political pendulum swings with a balancing act. In fact, the balancing was so well done, voters often complained they couldn’t tell the difference between the parties. Remember that? Liberals forgot a lesson from history: as soon as any political philosophy becomes dogma, however benign, there will be those, less heard, invested (and investing) in its downfall.
Perhaps then, more surprising, is it took nearly a decade before the planes crashed into New York and Washington.
America, under attack, lashed out in two directions. Vengeance was a war in Afghanistan against Al Qaeda, the perpetrators of the atrocity; even though three previous British and one Russian invasion proved it would cost a lot and win little. America’s second front, predicated on a lie about ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’, was a more economically rewarding war in oil rich Iraq.
When Britain signed up as co-combatants it not only inspired the largest protest march in UK history but set the wheels in motion for our present state. The “sexed up” lie, once exposed, irrevocably tarnished Tony Blair and, by association, his reforming New Labour initiative. His “third way”.
In 2008 another lie, that poor people’s unrepayable debt can be endlessly resold – the so-called Sub-Prime market – collapsed, as did the banks that fed off it; creating global economic chaos and the final nail in the coffin for the liberal conservatism of New labour, now redubbed “Neo-liberalism”.
From the Coalition to Brexit, the UK became a microcosm of the West’s descent into right-wing populism. Fearing that they too would lose their more extreme voters, the Tories leapt away from the middle ground to embrace Nigel Farage’s xenophobic UKIP policies whilst Labour were left squabbling. What made this so much more disastrous than before was not the Tory services, benefits and tax cutting, billionaire enabling, policies (they do what they say on the tin) it was how far they could go with it because the losers, the left, had descended so far into factionalism.
It turns out that the two-sided political swing system was there for a reason. With decent opposition, someone to fear they might lose their jobs to, politicians behave. Checks and balances prevent extremes. But, after the crash, without the usual equilibrium, extreme social policies like “austerity” went largely unopposed and fiscal responsibility meant not investing in outside chances like preparation for a pandemic.
The Blair brand was so despised in the Labour Party, “moderate” became a swearword and a more extreme left emerged. First “Red” Ed Miliband fought off his Blairite brother and then the joke stalking horse in the race for his replacement, the ultimate, back-bench, dyed-in-the wool, happier-being-radical, Jeremy Corbyn won in a bitterly divided Labour leadership contest; helped, allegedly, by a guerrilla campaign mass sign-up of temporary, secretly Tory supporting, members. Installing a donkey to lead the lions.
It was Corbyn’s inability to support any side in the Brexit vote, before or after, his chronic charisma-less unelectability and, his fan club, Momentum’s mass-delusion that he, and they, could win a General Election, that split the Left almost fatally, allowing the Right to do its worst.
Meanwhile in America, Obama, a black man presiding over a country far from having resolved its race issues, caused a new Confederacy of poor and poorly educated Libertarians and wealthy Republicans to find solace together and make, for the sake of unity, a desperate throw of the dice promoting a popular TV personality as leader: Donald Trump.
Now, with more Americans having voted for this venal narcissist than have ever voted for any president before, with the exception of Joe Biden, his real legacy, especially now as a loser, may only just be starting: the world’s superpower tearing itself apart, finally enabling a new dawning of the Eastern Empires as the world’s next dominant civilizations.
So on this auspicious new year, when we reflect on how we got to this divided, difficult, often uncomfortable, usually uncertain, dismal pass, even without the pandemic, we’ve got to ask: was the real malign influence the opportunistic populist winners? Or, are we here because those who believed they had won the world, didn’t know how to lose?
In the end, of course, we are where we are. And, however tantalising, we can’t just stare at the mirror on the ceiling. There’s got to be a key to the cuffs somewhere on the corpse. It’s time to get dressed, cover the body, and sell the fairy dust.
This article first appeared in print in