“I feel empty of hope and completely powerless to do anything about it”
These are the words my friend Elaine typed to me during an otherwise mundane catch-up chat. She was explicit. This wasn’t about her job or her relationships or any other personal drama. It was about the state of the world around her. It made her angry, but her anger felt impotent. I know those feelings so well. I wanted to tell her that it’s all going to be OK, that all the violence and ignorance and fear in our world right now is just the final desperate thrashing of the regressive status quo, that our societies are slowly, glacially shifting in a better direction. But I couldn’t say those things with honesty, because honestly, I’m not sure of anything.
“We’re living through the fall of the west”
These are the words my sister typed to me in the wake of Brexit. They made me sit bolt up in my chair. Any other day, any other year, I might have dismissed them as an unnecessary dramatisation, but how true they rang in the moment, how matter-of-fact an observation this seemed. Having taken some time to think on it, they still don’t seem like an exaggeration. Geo-politically, it’s entirely accurate: our populations are ageing, our economies are stagnating, our societies are crumbling under the weight of austerity, and our value as a trading partner is quickly diminishing, propped up only at the steep expense of our “less developed” neighbours. It seems to me that those of us living in “developed” economies – certainly in English-speaking nations – are witnessing the logical conclusion of the Great Neoliberal Capitalist Experiment. For the vast majority of people, it’s been an unmitigated failure. Lots of people have very little money and are told that it’s their own fault for not working hard enough. Those of us who do have a bit money are still mostly miserable, because all we can afford is stuff to keep ourselves distracted. For a tiny, almost negligible, handful of people, it’s worked out very well.
In 2008, while I was in my second year of university, the greed and hubris of a relatively tiny handful of powerful men triggered a global recession that cost millions of people their jobs, their livelihoods, their health and their futures. These men were never punished. Most of us don’t even know their names. They suffered no consequences beyond a slap on the wrist, if that. They sailed away into the sunset on their yachts, their fortunes intact, and their reputations only slightly tarnished, comfortable in the knowledge that we cannot touch them.
In 2010, my classmates and I completed our undergraduate degrees and entered the “real world”, which for most of us meant a hamster wheel of zero hour contracts and unpaid internships. Whether we wanted to cure disease or build machines, make art or market it, we found ourselves overqualified and underutilized, overworked and underpaid. We were told that the heady privilege of having a job should be enough for us. Initially, it was disorientating. After all, we were just following the roadmap our parents had laid out for us. Get a good education. Follow the rules. Work hard and the sky’s the limit.
By 2011, it became apparent that we had been sold a crock of shit. The Occupy movement flared and stuttered. The majority of us staggered into our late twenties with no property, no pension, no health insurance and no prospect of securing any of those things in the near future. We set our sights lower, fixed them on more manageable goals – moving out of home, finding a decent apartment to rent, saving up enough for a good laptop or a car or a Masters degree to make our skills more “marketable”, to prove that we can absolutely add value to someone else’s bottom line. Some of us will be paying off student loans for decades. Millions upon millions of us are chronically depressed, chronically anxious, chronically isolated from any sense of community or solidarity with the people around us. We are told that this epidemic-level mental health crisis is due to our own personal failings. So we all start trying to be more “mindful” as we desperately attempt to hammer out an approximation of individual success, just like our parents said we could and should. The mainstream media scoffs at us for our narcissism, our laziness, our frivolity.
The job market shrinks. Income inequality skyrockets. The generation that tanked the economy tells us to try harder.
Across the Atlantic, young African-Americans are brutalized by the police as they flood out into the streets to protest their brutalization at the hands of the police. In Ireland, women are fighting a different type of battle for our bodies, as our government tells us again and again that the “life” of a fetus – even a dying one – is more important than our inalienable right to bodily autonomy. In the United Kingdom, a slim majority has rejected union with Europe in favour of a brand of “sovereignty” that no longer exists in the modern globalized world. It was a move so regressive and so egregiously bad for Britain that the ringleaders of the Leave campaign jumped ship within days of their victory.
Across Europe, we’re seeing the rise of the ethno-nationalist far right. They give voice to the little dark thoughts that haunt every subconscious: the fear of the Other, loyalty to the tribe, the nagging suspicion that if we can just get rid of Them, everything will go back to the way it was. It seems like not so long ago, these voices were confined to the overtly racist corners of the internet. Across the water, in the self-proclaimed bastion of liberty and unity that is the United States of America, one of those little racist voices is the presumptive Republican nominee for the most important job in the world.
Meanwhile the oceans rise and our planet boils and we tote around our reusable shopping bags and drink from our reusable water bottles and conscientiously turn off the lights and sort our recycling. As factories across the planet churn out thousands of millions of blenders and baby wipes and reusable water bottles on a daily basis, we tell ourselves that we’re doing our bit and that our bit is enough, that it has to be enough because we don’t know what else we can do. We pick small battles, manageable battles. At least, that’s what I do. Because that’s all I can do. Because every time I raise my eyes higher than one election, one referendum, one protest, one campaign, all I can see is a system that’s so thoroughly fucked that I may as well go back to bed with my videogames and cartoons. Because what’s the point? I can always snark my way through the apocalypse on Twitter.
I’ve been listening to the award-winning, record-breaking, Broadway musical Hamilton pretty much non-stop for the past two weeks. Hamilton is the story of an underdog – a bastard, orphan, penniless immigrant – who changed the course of a revolution and shaped the character of a nation by being plucky and standing up for what he believed in. This year was the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, an Irish rebellion against British rule that failed in the moment but ultimately set us on the road to independence. Some of the men who were martyred in that rising weren’t much older than me.
I know these revolutions were not straightforward. I know they were messy, impossible, emotionally and physically harrowing. But there was a clear power structure to be resisted and overthrown, a nation, a ruling class, a figurehead, visible and nameable. There was boundless idealism and a real sense of possibility. A sense that it was possible to build something new and better out of the ruins of what had come before, even if that wasn’t always a reality once the smoke cleared and the dust settled. But now? Now, as Blindboy Boatclub so succinctly puts it, all we’ve got is despair and confusion:
Like my friend Elaine, I feel angry. In my bones, I feel the need to stand up and fight to make this world fairer, brighter, happier place. I’ve been following rules my whole life. I’m very good at following rules. But now I want to fight something. My fists are clenched, but I don’t know where I should start throwing punches. There is no king who can conveniently be guillotined. Our government officials are corrupt but democratically elected. The corporate powers that be are faceless and unassailable. Our impotent anger is good for the status quo, because the elite can use it to turn us against each other; immigrants vs blue collar workers, millennials vs baby boomers, Muslims vs Christians, us vs them. We live in a post-modern, post-factual world. Who are the ruling class and how do we tear them down? I think of the Occupy Movement, small brightly-clad figures framed by blank, implacable grey skyscrapers. How do we revolt against structures that are too big to see, too complex to comprehend?
As I said from the outset, I don’t have the answers to any of this. But when I get in the kind of mood that leads me to write posts like this, I think of the words of Ursula Le Guin. She says:
“We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.”
I find myself thinking, once again, thinking about Hamilton, the smash-hit, the cultural phenomenon. Specifically, the character of Hamilton, who spent his life writing day and night, writing as though he was running out of time. He wrote his way to revolution and then he wrote his fledgling nation into existence. I also think about Angelica Schuyler, who sings to the revolutionary young men around her: “You want a revolution? I want a revelation!”
Revelations don’t just fall out of the sky. You don’t get to revelation by staring at the wall or at a blank page. You get to revelation by doing, by talking, by creating, by moving. And don’t get me wrong, the impulse to hide in bed and watch cartoons is still there. But whenever I start to feel crushed by it all, when I start to feel empty of hope and powerless to do anything about, there are a few truths I can circle back to, a few truths I hold to be self-evident: Nothing is unassailable. Creation is resistance. Revelation is revolution. We are living through the fall of the west. We get to decide where we land.
Major shout outs to the aforementioned Elaine for speed editing this thing for me at 11pm on a school night. Smashing the status quo is more fun with pals.