The year 2016 has been extraordinarily bleak. In June, following a nasty campaign, peppered with a barely concealed racist venom, Britain narrowly voted to leave the EU. Then in November, after an even nastier, more racist and surreal campaign, a deranged kleptocrat demagogue won the US presidency (while also losing the popular vote by a significant margin).
Both events will have dramatic and long-lasting implications for health and healthcare. Leaving the EU will: damage shared research and clinical trial networks; make it significantly harder to recruit health staff at all levels; harm the UK’s place in a web of pan-European public health institutions that have taken over 40 years to develop; and increase supply costs to the NHS due to a weakening pound. It’s also plain that the Brexiteers cannot be trusted with the NHS.
But perhaps the greatest threat to the NHS is economic. Leaving the EU will require that the UK borrow an extra £58 billion over the next five years. This is on top of falling tax revenues that could cost the government £66 billion. Under these circumstances, the continued funding of many public services, including the NHS, becomes unsustainable.
The election of Trump will inflict parallel damages on healthcare in the US. It is likely that Obamacare will be altered to cover far fewer people or repealed entirely. This will disproportionally hurt many of the ‘white poor’ who voted for Trump. There are also strong indications that a Trump presidency will have a deleterious effect on reproductive rights and women’s equality and climate change.
In both the UK and the US it is also might be appropriate to consider something as ill-defined as ‘the health of the nation’. In both countries, following these separate elections, there were dramatic increases in the number of racially or religiously aggravated crimes. Decades of progress that held tolerance and diversity as normative values appear to be going into reverse. The UK and the US are transmuting into meaner, crueller and more inward-looking countries. Places that are profoundly ill at ease with themselves.
Meanwhile, those in charge of this new political landscape seem to have little aptitude for the work that lies ahead. After the US election, it emerged that Trump may not have any idea what a president does. Six months after the UK’s vote to leave the EU it is apparent that the British government has no clue about what to do next. Indeed, some government ministers do not even seem to understand the basics of international trade policy. And the UK’s opposition leadership appears to “offer anxious voters… nothing” or as one commentator quipped “Labour and Brexit. Against having your cake. Against eating it too”. But mostly Labour’s position on Brexit is so confused that it has rendered itself irrelevant as a political force.
How did we reach this point and how did so many vote for outcomes that lead to national self-harm? One answer has already been given on these pages. But two separate texts offer alternative explorations of our present situation: Adam Curtis’s HyperNormalisation and Klaus Theweleit’s Männerphantasien. Even though these narratives are in different mediums and cover distinctive historical periods they share similarities of style. Both are long and digressive accounts, prone to lengthy tangential diversions and Gothic imagery. Both occupy a weird space between unsettling truths and darkly sprawling nightmares.
Curtis’s HyperNormalisation plots the period from the mid-1970s to the present day and reminds us that the phenomenon of post-truth politics is not new. His impressionistic account has a common reprise – that we have become caught in a fake world that reflects our desires and anxieties back to us while also obscuring the complexities of a shifting global reality. The title refers to an idea coined to describe the last years of the Soviet Union. Here everyone knew that the ‘planned economy’ was failing but politicians, leaders and citizens all went along with the pretence of a functioning society. What then emerged was a fake society. Everybody knew it was fake, but had to play along and pretend it was real – this effect was termed “HyperNormalisation”.
Curtis’s story (and he never claims it to be more than a story) loops through the Middle-East, north-America, the birth of the internet, and global capital. Politicians faced with an ever more complex geopolitical situation started telling simpler and simpler stories that focused on one dimensional ‘evil villains’ as the root of the world’s ills. These stories obscured the grubby twists and turns of international political relations. And it is precisely in the murcky world of our past deals and corrupt compromises that we need to look to understand the rise of groups like ISIS, the civil war in Syria or even the financial crisis of 2008.
Meanwhile, domestically politicians were ceding much of their power to the markets and global capital. In the last 30 years, global capital was increasingly being virtually curated by massive computer arrays analysing big data and controlled by investment management corporations. Politics moved away from the idea of making society better, and instead became about the prediction and management of risk.
The political narrative, hollowed out by simplification and often intentionally contradiction, took on a surreal aspect. As Curtis is fond of saying, ‘nothing quite made sense anymore’ as politicians’ stories became increasingly perforated by external events beyond their control. The new social media and the virtual online world became aligned with these dynamics as disoriented, and powerless citizens increasingly turned to virtual worlds of the internet and social media. Mass political participation became virtual and self-absorbed.
And the global social media companies, such as Facebook and Twitter, (aided by algorithms) targeted our concerns and predilections, fed our fears and desires back to us (“if you liked that, you will like this!”). The danger with such a feedback loop is that it fuels anger and prejudice. Politics becomes a surrealist farce with anger taking the place of debate. Personalities like Trump, Farage and the Brexiteers opportunistically fed on, and fuelled this anger. Thus, during the EU referendum and the US election, there was much use of ‘dog whistle’ tactics that played on the fear of the other, especially if the other was brown skinned and Muslim. But the ‘reverse dog whistle’ played a greater role – so for example, an outrageous statement would be made (the ‘breaking point’ poster or plans to instate a Muslim registry). This would generate fury and anger amongst liberals who would point out similarities to Nazi propaganda in the hope that this would lead to disgrace. But this is to misunderstand the sub-text of these moves. It is not:
‘Thanks for pointing that out, we have made a terrible mistake, we did not mean that.’
Rather it is:
‘We know that you think we are Nazis/fascists, but we don’t care, and we want you to know we don’t care!’.
The reverse dog whistle of the media savvy far right is fruitful because it flaunts its extreme views into the echo-chambers of both ally and opposition alike. Politics conducted like this is impervious to charges of lying or exposure to ‘the facts’ because its fakeness is flaunted along with its vaudeville fascism. But it is very good at tapping into the anger that it helped create.
Similarly, Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies (Männerphantasien) whilst it analyses a different period to Curtis, also offers an insight into our present state. Theweleit’s account is an investigation of the proto-fascist Freikorps who roamed Germany after the first world war, violently suppressing left-wing groups and organisations. Drawing on Deleuze, Balint, Freud and Melanie Klein, Theweleit carries out a psychoanalytic analysis of the journals, diaries and novels written by the Freikorp.
Essential to Theweleit’s analysis is the connection he makes between these proto-fascists inner fantasises and their presence as political agents. And here the defining characteristic was an extreme misogyny and hyper-masculinity. These men drew a violent contrast between their wives who were seen as asexual, distant, ‘white women’, in need of protection and the ‘shrieking’, ‘red women’ on the side of their opponents. Theweleit asserts that when confronted by these ‘red’ women the proto-fascist ‘impulse is to pierce the facade of female “innocence,” to display the whole morass of blood and excrement… it is a shot or a rifle butt blow that extracts the evidence”.
Femininity and femaleness, for these men, is a risk to their very existence. Anything alluding to the dissolving of boundaries or intimacy was a threat and was often associated with the imagery of the corrupting swamp. Equivalence was drawn between femininity and disorder, dirt, fluidity and flows (particularly of bodily fluids). And these were all regarded with a deep terror and revulsion. The ‘most urgent task’ of the project was to dam, block and subdue flows and fluidity.
Theweleit rejects a conventional Freudian analysis of these “soldier-males” because they barely exhibit any repression at all – their fantasies are all about violent cruelty, of reducing enemies (especially women) to a formless ‘bloody miasma’, and that’s exactly how they acted. For Theweleit, the archetypical fascist masculinity results from the ‘field of the basic fault’:
The sequence under discussion does not go like this: I can’t reach my mother because my father bars my way, so I have to repress the incestuous desire for my mother and suffer as a result, since I don’t want to give up incest. That would be conflict. Instead, we have this: there’s something wrong here, something threatening. Why is everyone so unreal, pressuring me and pressing in on me? Am I truly “I”? What’s going on here? Everyone had better get away, or I don’t know what might happen… It would take a basic structural fault to force the patient to perceive… an unthreatening reality as threatening in this way.
Both the Brexiteers and Trump during the US election, turned the ‘unthreatening reality’ of immigration flows into objects of fear and terror. Both used an obsessional rhetoric that spoke of the need to ‘dam’ these flows and to reassert control of our national boundaries, despite the evidence that immigration is beneficial. Both Trump, and some prominent Brexiteers expressed a causal misogyny towards women that often referred to their biology. Farage justifying unequal pay based on childbearing and Trump’s infamous “She had blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her … wherever” comment on Megyn Kelly, shows a fixation and disgust at women’s bodily functions. Trump’s constant exhortation to ‘drain the swamp’ could have been taken straight from Theweleit’s study. And the brutal political assassination of female MP Jo Cox in the last week of the EU referendum by a member of the extreme racist right, who believed white people faced an existential threat, shows that we should take Theweleit’s analysis very seriously.
Where do we go from here? The juncture we find ourselves at certainly has the potential to repeat some of the darker moments from our recent history. But for the moment they are just potentials. Resistance is still possible, and we don’t have to allow the normalisation of either Trump or Brexit. And despite all the triumphalism from the Brexiteers and Trumpists, they are behaving like they lost. It’s almost as if “they are angry at the losing side for letting them win”. Their flaunting of extreme views and the coalescing around an undifferentiated anger may also be their undoing. With no clear plan, the resentment and anger that fuelled their victories could come to return with a vengeance. It remains to be seen if progressive political movements can find a new vision to take account of these forces.
Adam Curtis’s ‘HyperNormalisation‘ is available on the BBC iPlayer
Theweleit, K. ‘Male Fantasies’, 2 Vols., Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press; Polity Press, 1987
Theweleit, K. ‘Männerphantasien’, 2 Vols., Verlag Roter Stern/Stroemfeld, Frankfurt am Main/Basel 1977–1978