The Summer of Uncertainty

Jubilee Cadbury BarAt long last, the bunting is coming down. As I walked through the darkened Accounts department of my company this morning, I saw that the last vestiges of visible patriotic fervour were to be found in the scant remains of a chocolate bar whose wrapper was emblazoned with a Union Flag. The Queen has retreated into her cloistered, gilt-edged world; the rest of us are slowly adapting back to the usual rhythms of the work week. The immediate spectacle of “Circuses Without Bread” (at least for certain unpaid stewards) is behind us. More distractions lay ahead: the Euro 2012 football championship will begin shortly and then will be closely followed by the Olympics. According to the BBC news this morning, people on average will be watching 97 minutes of sport per day this summer. Yes, the message seems to be, cheer on the home side, cheer on the brilliant Jessica Ennis or Rebecca Adlington; drink deep of the River Lethe and let the wider world slip from the bounds of consideration and memory.

It’s easy to denounce these diversions; there are so many real world issues which should capture our attention. During the Jubilee weekend, the UK’s credit rating was downgraded by a minor agency, Spain admitted that its banks were in trouble, Syria continued to bleed. In order to escape the droning pomposity of Jubilee coverage over the weekend, I tuned into PBS, an American channel: it was stated on the “Newshour” programme that Louisana loses an area the size of a football field every hour or half hour due to the effects of climate change. Focus on the Jubilee, or look at the trouble we’re in? It’s no wonder that the eye turns to the brightly coloured bunting and the mind desires relief from woe by focusing on pageantry and spectacle. We are susceptible also because we lack the rhythms and melodies of happier days: I recall Shostakovich’s opera “Moskva Cheryomushki”, which was composed during the heady period after the death of Stalin. Shostakovich had hitherto been known for somewhat morose music, such as Symphony No. 7 which he wrote during the Siege of Leningrad, and the Adagio from his second Piano Concerto. In contrast, “Moskva Cheryomushki” contained a polka and suggested that everyone was going to get a nice new flat of their own. This cheerfulness existed despite the fact that the nation was by and large traumatised after Stalin’s malignant reign. Who would deem such music as being apropos now? Indeed, the Jubilee Concert held in front of Buckingham Palace showed that the optimistic tunes all arose from the past: Madness’ quirky chirpiness was imported from the 1980’s, Elton John’s vigorous piano playing was transported from the 1970’s. The Jubilee itself was a glance backwards, not forwards. Because if we look forward, what we find is a summer of uncertainty, and beyond this, we face an autumn that is shrouded in darkness.

Much can be said about the unpredictability created by the Euro crisis; as of today, Spain wants a bailout for the banks, not for the government itself. As it is the banks that are in trouble and the Spanish state has run up less debt than most of its counterparts, this is not an unreasonable stance. It’s unclear, however, that the Germans will allow such a bailout to take place. It’s still less clear that the European Union rules are sufficiently flexible to facilitate this; theoretically, bank bailouts of this kind aren’t allowed. No one really knows how this is going to play out.

Also, no one really knows what the Greek elections on June 17th are going to achieve. The polls go backwards and forwards: some days the far-left SYRIZA party is ahead, still others, the centre-right New Democracy. If New Democracy wins, then austerity will continue. If SYRIZA wins, the Greeks could fall out of the Euro altogether: SYRIZA denies this, but their thesis is that the Germans will continue to support the Greek economy even if they revoke the austerity programme. I wouldn’t be so sure: such brazen hubris is unlikely to succeed, and the Germans probably have plans ready to deal with a Greek departure. What do the Greeks themselves believe? It seems waver and twist like a feather on the wind, its destination far from sure.

Meanwhile, it is clear that the lack of courage and clarity in the Eurozone is driving both President Obama and David Cameron to distraction. Cameron let fly with the undiplomatic phrase, “make up or break up” in addressing the Eurozone. Obama can see his electoral prospects shrink as the unemployment queues lengthen. Look at the Gallup polls: Obama and Romney are virtually even at the moment. This is extraordinary considering that Obama has had much more time to prepare and his coffers weren’t depleted by a bruising primary. Yet the Democrats could not yank Scott Walker out of the governor’s office in Wisconsin: union rights in a traditionally liberal state have been curtailed. This suggests that even in progressive corners of the nation that progressive assumptions are being questioned: unions were once the cornerstone of the American auto and steel industries, now the electorate apparently wants them to be emasculated everywhere. Romney rises not necessarily because of his own qualities but because of what lay beneath: a nasty assumption, that anything collective is automatically “socialist” and therefore bad, and that any taxes paid are automatically theft rather than the price of a free society. Romney perhaps need say nothing to directly address this, he may rise higher by simply coasting along the wave and giving this sentiment an occasional approving nod.

A Young ZombiePerhaps the common element to all the uncertainty is a sense of powerlessness. Yesterday’s lunchtime conversation at my office focused on films and the popularity of zombie movies; indeed, there is a pervasive if somewhat light-hearted concern about a “zombie apocalypse”. I mentioned that architects have designed zombie-proof homes. There were a few laughs around the table; after all, zombies aren’t real, at least not the brain-eating, horror film kind. In fact, given that zombies shuffle along pretty slowly and seem relatively easy to dispatch provided the hero has a sufficiently powerful shotgun or chainsaw, why are they so frightening? Is it the idea that death is not permanent, or is it the idea of being lifeless, dragged along by forces that supplant free will? I suggest the latter; if we accept that the interest in the meandering, ravenous undead is a symptom of our times, then perhaps it sends along a message from society’s subconscious. The forces of war, economic decline, environmental catastrophe, these are man-made; if there was sufficient will, we could stop them. Yet they control us, rather than the other way around. We are driven, like zombies towards a destination we cannot foresee by urges we cannot restrain. The invisible hand of Adam Smith’s imagining has turned into that of the puppeteer, yanking on strings, making humanity do a Dance Macabre. This is perhaps because the definition of self interest has become ever more narrow: what is good for me today prevails over what will be good in a larger sense tomorrow. Merkel refuses money for the Greeks and Spanish because this bolsters her reputation with her own people today; what will she say tomorrow if she is the instigator of the Euro’s collapse? She has perhaps convinced herself that it won’t happen so long as her remedies are applied, and even if it does happen, that it’s because her prescriptions weren’t followed with sufficient rigour. Remember: this was same argument deployed by ultra-capitalists after the collapse of the housing bubble in the United States. But take the blinkers off and it’s easy to see that austerity is not making anyone prosper, something must be done to protect Greece and Spain. But it’s more comforting to remain blind, thus the uncertainty goes on.

This would merely be annoying if the consequences weren’t so severe. We’re not in a position whereby we can simply hope that nothing will happen if we do nothing; the forces which have rendered our leaders into limping, shuffling avatars of the political undead are driving the rest of us over a cliff. The collapse of the Euro can be easily foreseen. It’s distinctly possible that the current recession will get worse. In my mind’s eye, I can see the confetti and balloons come down on a smiling Mitt Romney and his picture-perfect cookie-cutter family on a cold November night; I can imagine, in contrast, the downcast look of President Obama as he addresses his disappointed supporters. We may want to look away and watch the Olympics or the football, but this future may have to be faced anyway. If it does happen, however, we shouldn’t be fooled: none of it had to occur.

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