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Wreath Lectures

2012: The Year The Establishment Didn't Crumble
Alex Niven , December 12th, 2012 07:17

In the second of our Wreath Lectures, Alex Niven looks back over the strange year that was 2012, and asks why there hasn't been more of a kick against the "pink-faced farce" of our leaders... and hopes for better in 2013

As the cultural theorist Mark Fisher pointed out earlier this year, the whole of British culture has now started to resemble an especially nasty David Peace novel. In Peace works like GB84 and the Red Riding Quartet, violent crime and insurrection unfold against a backdrop of corruption and conspiracy theory. Peace takes the whodunit premise of crime fiction and nudges it into social critique: the perpetrator of violence in his novels is usually a sinister cabal of policemen, property developers, MPs, football club chairmen, local businessmen, minor celebrities, and paedophiles. For a long time, people assumed Peace was exaggerating for dramatic effect, that his darkly surrealist narratives about late-twentieth century Britain were poetically, rather than strictly realistically, true. But in 2012 Peace began to look like the most prosaic realist out there. In this low dishonest year, conspiracy theories about the rottenness of the British establishment mutated from poetic fiction into hard fact.

The dawning realisation this autumn that erstwhile national treasure Jimmy Savile was not just a paedophile but a sort of Ivan the Terrible for the pop generation was merely the astonishing nadir of a year in which authority figures right across the board were outed as bone fide pantomime villains. Ethically challenged England football captain John Terry was stripped of his armband and found guilty of racially abusing another player by an FA disciplinary hearing in September. In August, George Osborne, surely the most popularly loathed politician since Norman Tebbit, had his hate-figure status confirmed once and for all when he was roundly and symbolically booed at the London Paralympics. In fact, the Tory government as a whole looked risible. After a two-year "honeymoon" with the British electorate characterised less by real affection than by grudging acceptance that no-one else seemed to be available, David Cameron's premiership descended into a pink-faced farce. Revelations of text messages sent to Rebekah Brooks concerning her lovely horse painted a beyond-satire picture of Chipping Norton set nepotism.

At moments it seemed like these personal burlesques might be joined by wider and deeper exposés of structural decay. In November the Beeb was (half unfairly) vilified for the Savile debacle and the ensuing Newsnight farrago. Meanwhile, the Leveson Inquiry carried over some of the anti-Murdoch mood of last year. Even more remarkably, the belated publication of the independent report on the Hillsborough disaster finally confirmed suspicions of criminal incompetence leading to the deaths of dozens of football supporters, and of a subsequent cover-up and smear campaign by the police, the local authorities, the Sun newspaper and the Tory government of the late 1980s. Again, "conspiracy theorists" who had been pointing to cover-up and corruption for the last two decades looked like pie-in-the-sky fantasists no longer.

To boil this all down to a simple summary: over the last twelve months the various power structures that control British culture and society have been undermined to an almost implausible extent. Bankers, politicians, policemen, journalists, TV presenters, racist footballers, faux-folk musicians, businessmen, media moguls: all are now seen as pitiful idiots by the general public when they are not regarded as outright racketeers, shysters, clowns, or worse. With an apparently unstoppable momentum that shows no signs of abating, the establishment is committing suicide in the most spectacular, most public way imaginable. It should be crumbling into the bowels of the earth.

So why in the name of Jim'll Fix It isn't it? This is a pretty big question, to which there are no likely easy answers. But we should at least try to figure out why, when the radical energy of 2011 has been joined in 2012 by so many conspicuous failures of the malodorous rich and powerful, the result has so far been a slight shrinking rather than a snowballing of popular anti-establishment movements such as Occupy – at least in visible, mainstream terms. Fifty years ago, an MP having sex with an unfortunately well-connected prostitute was enough to bring down an entire government and help lay the ground for the insurrectionary atmosphere of late 60s. Why, when the moral bankruptcy of the current establishment is far more endemic and insidious, is there not a similar tide of popular outrage?

Maybe people in the twenty-first century are simply wiser and more cynical about authority figures. Or perhaps, more hopefully, 2012 was just a lull in the storm; maybe an incipient new counterculture will be kicked back to life in 2013. But a big problem right now seems to be that the sorts of people actually suffering at the hands of the power villains remain out of the pale of even supposedly sympathetic tendencies, so that the anger people do feel about injustice never rises above an inarticulate sigh. When a Tory peer or a Hollywood celebrity or a Premier League footballer is on the wrong end of corruption or injustice, there might be an appropriately voluble media scandal. In contrast, when the victims are football fans or children in Yorkshire hospitals or sex workers or victims of local authority cuts in Barrow or Bradford or Barking, the response can be meagre, ludicrously slow to arrive, and regularly non-existent. Even in leftist circles, a massive epochal exposé like Hillsborough can pass by with relatively little comment, presumably because it is not the sort of cause people preoccupied with Badiou and book launches are all that bothered about.

Public discourse isn't yet ready to allow for an expansion of Occupy-style dissent into populist terrain. We're still suffering from the inequalities of representation that have deepened like a disease throughout the land since the defeat of battles like the miners' strike and Hillsborough in the Thatcher years (and it's clear that many in authority did indeed view these events as "battles" in a shockingly literal sense, as anyone who saw the Battle of Orgreave section of the ace Jeremy Deller retrospective at the Hayward Gallery this year can attest). Just as money, property, and jobs have increasingly drifted away from the population as a whole and concentrated in the hands of an elite minority over the last few decades, so too have means of cultural expression been monopolised by a small number of institutions that control discourse and pretend not to hear the unrepresented majority groaning on the margins.

Culture is still a worryingly top-down affair. For all that the neoliberal consensus initiated by Thatcher and continued by Blair and Cameron was supposed to "free up" society after the statism of the post-war years, cultural influence is now more centrally administered than ever. To take just one example, observe the rigid structures currently fencing-in British pop music like a monstrous Meccano set. Despite the best efforts of leftfield stalwarts (such as the present publication, natch), for a majority of people the "alternative" music scene is now more or less reducible to Zane Lowe, Nick ‘Friend to the Stars' Grimshaw, the corporate festival circuit, Later… With Jools Holland, and the Barclaycard Mercury Prize. A few well-connected PR companies, A&Rs, record execs, and careerist (often privately educated) musicians treat the pop avant-garde as their birthright, while grassroots and bottom-up elements go largely unsupported in the mainstream. Modern pop music began as the ultimate expression of democratic populism in the post-war years, but it is now some way into its decadent, baronial phase. When things have become so damnably hierarchical, it's no wonder there hasn't been a society-wide countercultural upsurge in years.

Away from the powerful centres of the capitalist entertainment and media industries, most people look on with a mixture of apathy and hopelessness at bunfights that do not seem to concern them. Unorganised and without representation, people in marginal communities are without a platform from which they can kick the establishment even when it's floundering in spectacular messes of its own devising. When the Murdoch phone-tapping scandal blew up, it seemed to have the potential to create a popular outcry against the right-wing press and the powerful private interests that treat elected representatives like blow-up dolls. But this sense of possibility gradually drained away as warring celebrity factions progressively cancelled each other out. At the end of a long, hysterical media storm, little was left at the end of 2012 of the hacking furor but the faint memory of a tug-of-war between the Murdoch empire and an awkward liberal-centrist PR campaign involving the Guardian, Louise Mensch, and the guy who played Alan Partridge.

On the other side of the power spectrum, life in the third year of the coalition is bleak. In Newcastle in November, the council announced 100% cuts to its arts budget. In massively depressed Stoke-on-Trent, houses are being sold for a quid, while abandoned swathes of the city deteriorate into a post-industrial wasteland. If ever there were causes tailor-made to provoke anger and protest in the appropriate circles, basic injustices such as these should have done. But as yet, not all that much has happened. The insurrectionary atmosphere of 2011 was put on hold in 2012, because student protests and theory-driven activism have not yet found a way, in a hierarchical, post-union movement society, of solidly connecting up with the sorts of people all around the country who are being shafted in the old fashioned way by the political and cultural establishment – old socialists, new immigrants, the millions of unemployed, public sector workers, ordinary men and women.

Right now the chasm that separates Occupy hipsters from this populist grassroots is vast. But if the gap can be bridged in 2013, we could be in for a tumultuous year. As Luke Turner pointed out on this website back in August, outside of the Cameronite mainstream there is another Britain waiting for a chance to represent itself, a massive simmering demographic that leaps at the chance to humiliate George Osborne in public, and couldn't really care less about inflated spectacles like the Jubilee, or the change of personnel at Newsnight, or the culture industry's increasingly irrelevant series of self-congratulatory prize ceremonies.

As the coalition continues to hammer away merrily at communities in places like Stoke and Newcastle, a sense of despair is gathering that we are locked in a sort of retro time warp where we are endlessly forced to relive the horrors of the Thatcherite 1980s. But it's highly likely that a tsunami of anger and fightback is beginning to rumble in corners of the country where the politicians and the celebrities and the media barons would never think to look. On a BBC4 documentary in November about the effect of local authority spending cuts in Staffordshire, a regular guy from Stoke commented quite calmly: "there's going to be a revolution in this country". When popular revulsion at the powers-that-be combines with a counterculture that moves from the bottom upwards, this sober prognosis might just be proved right.