“They create a desert, and call it peace!”. One of the enemies of the Roman empire said that — the Creator thinks it was Cassivellaunas, but if it was Vercingetorix it doesn’t matter. The point is that it is an apt introduction to the desert of the contemporary. A desert is at least a peaceful place — no nasty hopping animals or rustling leaves disturbing the passers-by and cluttering the landscape. So the Romans had a point.
But the idealised desert of the modern world is a desert which is called not only peace but prosperity, freedom, justice, spiritual harmony — an absolute utopia; the necessary condition for this statement being that there can be no passers-by with sensory organs. So they must be hooded or blinded in order to preserve this absolute utopia. Once upon a time the Emperor had no clothes; now everybody is expected to ignore the fact that the Emperor had clothes (stolen from us all) but rather we must focus our attention on the wonderful Empire which does not actually exist but which we must pretend exists.
Virtual reality failed as a technology but succeeded as a universal metaphor.
What is the Creator talking about? Not little things like the collapse of the world economy or the imminent destruction of the global ecosystem. Such things might well have happened anyway. These are things, however, which have been enabled, facilitated, empowered and accomplished by the thing which the Creator is trying to communicate.
OK. Dubai. In the desert they build pleasure-domes. Fair enough — why not build pleasure-domes for the rich? Well, firstly, because every pleasure-dome means less for everybody else. Those pleasure-domes serve to create poverty. Nothing new there, of course — every empire has done the same for its ruling class.
However, in the past, nobody pretended that the Golden House of Nero, or Blenheim Palace of Marlborough, was a service to the public. Those buildings were edifices of personal pride (Marlborough built a statue to himself, on the tallest column in Britain, on his front lawn). They were, supposedly, also signs of national greatness. “Look at us — we can afford to do this shit!”. Childish but comprehensible, if psychotic.
Dubai, on the other hand, is a monument to worthlessness. Shoddiness, shabbiness, impermanence — it will all disappear in the Depression, and it would all have disappeared — even if there had been no Depression — when the oil ran out and the justification for having a palace in the desert evaporated. In effect, the current global empire is saying “Look at us — this is the best we can do!”. Despicable.
And yet Dubai is supposedly the state which we are meant to admire. They have made a success of themselves. Sort of like Lindsey Lohan, in a way. But a Lindsey Lohan worshipped in the corporate pages; not for what it has really done, but how it epitomises the human spirit of neoliberal capitalism. Not even truly despicable; it arouses too little emotion for that.
So what has happened to us is that we are invited to admire that which is not admirable. It is no longer necessary, apparently, to warn us not to object to that which is contemptible. The public no longer protests against being crassly exploited. Also, it no longer protests against rich people plundering us and devastating the planet for their own selfishness. (Nero at least felt obliged to spend his own money rebuilding Rome; the Duke of Marlborough was immensely unpopular. Their childishness was tempered by a public which, despite having infinitely poorer communications than we have, was at least able to recognise that these people were not on their side and which posed enough of a threat to their rulers so that they could compel the rulers to do something for them.)
We are inside a box. We can vote for the people who built the box. Different people built the box, so we can vote for different people. But we are voting for the box. We can buy things from people who built the box. We can even listen to the propaganda put out by the people who built the box, and in both cases we can buy from, or listen to, different people, and tell ourselves that what we are experiencing is unrivalled choice and variety. However, we are still inside the same box, and we can do nothing to change the box (except now and then, perhaps, alter the colour or the texture of the material from which it is made). And we are stifling.
This is a metaphor but it is also a real experience.
You might say, well, the ruling class has always done this sort of thing and things are only a little worse than they used to be. But this does not really seem to be the case. There is more of this sort of thing than there was; more plundering, more incompetence, more lying about the plundering and the incompetence, and less hope.
Let us consider American presidential elections. The Presidents have been a sorry lot at least since Carter. Carter was a competent conservative; he did his best to fight against the Russians, provoking the Afghan war (so he shares with George H W Bush, a somewhat less competent conservative, the honour of destroying the World Trade Centre; Carter created al-Qaeda, Bush antagonised it). Of course, Carter pretended to be a liberal, and he also lied, pretending to tell the truth. “I will never lie to you”, he lied to the American people. And before Carter was Nixon (let us ignore Ford, as indeed does everybody) who also lied and obfuscated (“Let me make one thing perfectly clear”, he waffled) but who at least took decisions. Arguably Nixon was the last real liberal President, as Carter was the last competent conservative.
Since then — well, look at them. Reagan. George H W Bush. Clinton. George W Bush. Notice any similarities apart from their all emerging from the same corrupt elite and telling essentially the same lies to the same audiences? None of them pursued policies which benefited the nation as a whole. All of them pursued policies which benefited a minority; respectively, in Reagan’s and George W Bush’s cases a very small minority, in George H W Bush’s case a slightly larger minority, in Clinton’s case a quite large minority (indeed, on occasions during his government even the majority benefited slightly — but this was a by-product of policies aimed at benefiting minorities, not an end in itself). All of them knew that pursuing these policies would damage the rest of the country. All of them damaged the US Constitution to a greater or lesser extent and paved the way for the contemporary fiasco which is probably irreversible. All of them led up to the situation of today, where one can vote for the Wall Street warmongering authoritarian, or one can vote for John McCain who has the same qualities but a slightly more psychopathic personality.
But much more importantly, what are their monuments? What, in the last twenty-eight years, has the United States, the richest, most powerful, most free-to-act nation and government on the planet, created to be the envy of the rest of the world? In seven years they haven’t even been able to build a monument to the victims of the World Trade Centre atrocity. Their administrative accomplishments — the WTO, the World Court, the Global War on Terror — have been utter fiascos. No laws have been passed which have liberated Americans or other people. No evil, tyrannical states have been overthrown to the sound of cheering crowds of victims; instead, where evil and tyrannical states have been overthrown, the people look back on those states with nostalgia when they compare and contrast these states with the calamities which the United States has vested upon them. Foreign and domestic alike, the policies of the United States since Carter’s failure have been horrendous calamities, constant retreats from anything remotely admirable.
This is astounding because there has been so much money sloshing around. The last time there was so much money was the “Gilded Age” of the late nineteenth century — significantly, also a time of economic crisis which the rich managed to their own benefit until the whole thing fell apart in 1929. At that time, the “Gilded” signifies meretriciousness; it is not gold but only gold-plated or gold-painted. What Carlyle called “universal shoddy and devil’s dust cunningly varnished over” (shoddy here referring to the false material which gave its name to shoddiness) might have been horrific, and no doubt was — but compared with now, the late nineteenth century at least gave us some great accomplishments and public buildings. Even the horrors of the Scramble for Africa and the crushing of the Boxer Rebellion had a certain sick grandeur to them. By comparison, modern neocolonialism does not even have a spurious patina of majesty. If one compares the Boer War with the Iraq War, the advantage is unquestionably with Kitchener over Petraeus.
Similarly, capitalists have always been insulated from their reality, alienated from ordinary human experience, by money and the pursuit of money. No doubt many have simply been hollowed out by their wealth, as various novelists such as Pynchon and Doctorow have described. Life shrinks into the possession of money and the pursuit of more money which becomes the only reason for living, as if any such thing were a sufficient reason if you have enough to feed and clothe and shelter you for the rest of your life and a thousand lifetimes after that.
But the visions of emptiness and shallowness and the shrinking of human existence into nothingness, which were originally manifested in writers like Dickens, never took hold as they have now. Today the worthless possessions of the super-rich, the cigars and golf and uncomfortable clothes and ugly houses and clumsy cars, are blazoned in half the advertisements and editorials you come across. So we are all urged to leap on a staircase which for most of us is a down escalator on which we feebly struggle to make our way against the moving steps. Meanwhile there are security guards around the other escalator; the rich do not seek competition as they whizz skyward.
But ironically the escalator which the rich rise upon does not take them up to paradise. It takes them deeper into the desert. Or, perhaps, now, flings them off a cliff. What is more, they get onto the escalator because they are told to do it, just as we are.
There must be more to life than this.