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2015: The Year We All Became C*nts
Robert Barry , December 9th, 2015 10:05

Bobby Barry looks back at 2015, the year of Uber-ubiquity, "shy Tories" and virtue signalling, and asks if we've finally crossed the rubicon and are no longer worth rescuing from our appalling human selves

Image courtesy Olga Agelloz/Shutterstock

A few months back, in the midst of a baroque act of corporate restructuring which saw Google suddenly become a wholly owned subsidiary of an entirely new company called Alphabet, the Silicon Valley-based tech conglomerate quietly dropped their catchy corporate slogan, "don't be evil". In its place, the new code of conduct inserted a far more slippery injunction to "Do the right thing."

Should we be alarmed that one of the most powerful – if not the most powerful – multinational media corporations in the world, the very gateway to the whole damn internet for the vast majority of humans, just pretty much came and straight out declared that, from now on, they were indeed going to be evil like Skeletor on a bad day? Maybe. But for now, I'd like to see this simple elision more as a symptom, of a year in which the earth's population apparently breathed a collective fuck it and hurled its moral compass into the sea like a plastic sack full of mewling kittens.

This, after all, was the year in which everyone you know decided that getting to the pub that little bit quicker was much more important than such trifles as employee rights, corporate regulations, or passenger security. Uber wasn't invented this year, but it did become ubiquitous this year. 2015 is also the year in which the dark side of the transport company became inescapable. As more and more cases mounted of gross sexism by Uber's executives, of fare hikes during public crises, of political manipulation and shady business practices – not to mention all the times the company has simply shrugged its shoulders and deferred responsibility when Uber drivers have raped and kidnapped passengers or run over pedestrians – no-one, now, can honestly claim they can't see a downside to the Uber deal.

Frankly, believing in the innocence of the company must always have involved a degree of disingenuousness. I mean come on, the clue is in the name. That's Uber as in übermensch, as in über alles. Rugged Randian heroes all, the ambition of Uber's bosses is clearly nothing short of full-spectrum dominance. And it is with ubiquity that Uber really becomes troubling. For what happens when there is no alternative to Uber, and when the Uber model – that wildfire-like VC-bait "uber for x" – has infiltrated the rest of the economy? For Paul Mason it means the end of capitalism. Far more likely, by all current indications, is Evgeny Morozov's prediction that the so-called "sharing economy" will really mean the end of social democracy

The always-fragile compromises of social democracy have been beset this year not only by Silicon Valley disruptors. In May, the British people went to the polls with the firm conviction that they cared more for the value of their property than the quality of their public services. Since then, the government's attack on the NHS, on education, on welfare, and on local councils has been ruthless and brazen. But if newspaper headlines and friends of friends' Facebook feeds are anything to go by, people seem to be far more concerned about what Jeremy Corbyn wears when he pops out for milk or how deep was his bow at a war memorial.

At the same time, the two most popular newspapers in Britain have given up all pretence and become openly racist without any noticeable drop in circulation. While in France, though the Presidential election is still not due for another two years, every opinion poll conducted this year has placed the National Front either in first place or a very, very close second. Yes, the actual National Front. The fascist ones. Soon-to-be-rulers of France. According to all the polls.

On this side of the channel, the last twelve months have taught us to be a little wary of pre-election polling. May's general election saw the return of the Shy Tory with a vengeance. Of course it would be pretty embarrassing to admit that you actually support the Conservative Party. They are all horrible, oily bastards. I mean if someone asked you, you wouldn't say, would you? Yes, I hate the poor actually. Health care for all? Nah mate. Fuck it. It would be like wearing a twibbon on your social media profile to declare how much you like kicking puppies, or joining the Jeffrey Dahmer Fan Club and wearing the club badge prominently to a job interview or on a first date. People don't really do that, do they? Not that way round.

Part of the problem, perhaps, is that it has become so much easier to signal one's virtue than to act upon it. A million people marched through London in protest against the Iraq war in 2003. A mere 5,000 turned up to protest the proposed bombing of Syria the other day, but twice as many indicated their intention to go on Facebook – and nearly five times that said they were ‘interested'.

For sure, the two events are not really directly comparable, but even the much smaller protest in September 2002 – which, like the recent demo, came just a few days after the prime minister made his case for war before parliament – drew some 400,000 people to the streets of London. No UK march has managed such numbers since the launch of Facebook.

As a result, populist politics has been left open to the manipulations of the very worst. If you've ever joined in a chorus of disgust at pictures of poor, starving doggies on Facebook, the chances are you've been aiding and abetting a Britain First publicity drive. Your virtuous signal is always in danger of biting its own tail.

This is the tragedy of it all, really, the world hasn't gone full cunt out of any misguided conviction; evil simply proved that little bit more convenient. What's that you say? The very possibility of workers' self-organisation and collective negotiation is being eroded, possibly forever? Yah, whatevs. Twenty minutes til last orders. Call me an Uber. Understanding the causes behind those very real pressures on public services requires some degree of political thought and economic analysis? But who can really be arsed with that? Blame the foreigners. They dress funny.

Truly, if Satan himself were to create an iPhone app that allowed you to sell your soul at a single swipe without having to trudge out to the bloody crossroads at midnight, and it was free to download and didn't pester you with too many updates, how long would it be before hell's own Daily Express started carping on about being "full"?

But more than a year of virtue signalling, 2015 has been a year of "virtue signalling". Over the last twelve months, this two word collocation, which began life with a column in the Spectator attacking the pieties of the left, has – like most right wing tropes these days – quickly migrated from its natural habitat in the gutter, becoming a favoured phrase of The Guardian and a popular hashtag on Twitter.

During the Labour Party's leadership contest in the summer, it was frequently invoked as a tool for dismissing Jeremy Corbyn's supporters as feckless idealists ill-prepared for the realpolitikal necessity to slavishly nod along to Conservative Party policy, no matter how gruesome. But for James Bartholomew, the writer responsible for the phrase, it was a call to stop bashing the poor ickle Daily Mail and look to the Victorians, who all apparently did a lot of good work for charity but didn't like to talk about it. Because of course no-one has ever used a charitable donation as a means of showing off their massive bounty.

Accusations of virtue signalling have become one more way of policing other people's political enthusiasms. Worse than trumpeting your own benevolence; you are signalling your hard-nosed realism, your cynical aloofness, your willingness to lie down and compromise with bastards of every stripe. And as certain former Labour leaders have already discovered – and a few of their present MPs may be just about to – if you lie down with bastards, you may wake up accused of war crimes.

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