The old is dying — can the new be born?
For those of us who relish politics it is great times to be alive. This is what it must have felt like to live through the 1920s and 30s — a pervasive feeling that we are living through existential crises, that the stakes are high, that it matters what happens next, not just for ourselves or our immediates, but for the planet, humanity and life itself.
What we see on the theatre stage is stranger than fiction. The tragi-comedy which has produced the Trump-Johnson axis looms large in direct opposition to the reality most people face. Many of us turn away in disgust, rejecting the orgy of greed and destruction our leaders are bent on promoting. Others have convinced themselves that they want this — a cut-throat survival of the fittest, where only the strong survive. Society is rejected as a snowflake’s utopia belonging to the realm of dangerous dreaming and reckless spending. In that world we are encouraged to fear those calling on us to rethink our priorities so we can create something slightly more positive.
Greta becomes a naïve, angry, hypocritical kid who refuses to go to school and has never learnt proper manners. A surprising number of people are so confused that they cannot but imagine this must all be a conspiracy. There is no global warming. Impossible, that a 16-year-old autistic girl could act independently. She must be controlled by a great puppet-master, preferably a Jewish billionaire who is also behind the global migration crisis. They have lost hope altogether and are lost in the dark crevices of the internet, unable to escape, hating the world and distrusting everything humanity brings forth.
Being a historian, studying change in human societies over time, one of my favourite quotes of all time comes from Antonio Gramsci, the brilliant Italian revolutionary, who wrote most of his works in Mussolini’s prisons where he died eventually in 1937, just before the fury of World War 2 was unleashed upon the world.
He said: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
Let us look at this quote for a while. Is ‘the old’ dying?
I believe it is and we can take this both literally and as a metaphor. The generation that rebuilt our societies after WW2 will soon be dead. They represent our memories of societies which were more inclusive and less unequal. They believed in progress and passed this conviction on to us. They also oversaw the transition to the world we live in today — a world of escalating inequality and runaway climate change. The silent take-over of big corporations that prey on people and planet must be undone. But our leaders are so invested in this model that they now insist that ‘business as usual’ must continue.
The old is dying and must die.
The new has been cast — an embryo at the depth of our society. Or a tumour, steadily growing, until it bursts through the skin that covers it and keeps it contained. It has inherited the stubborn belief in progress, but knows that it must be redefined. It fights to shake off the legacy of the twentieth century, which is indeed a terrifying one. Can we rid ourselves of genocide, world war, nuclear weapons and the ecocide associated with unbridled capitalism?
Can the new be born?
It probably can, but we have to deal with these morbid symptoms Gramsci saw so clearly: the denial or our leaders who reassure us; the fear of the other, which has returned with so much clout, amongst the uncertainties so many of us feel; the threats of war; the hatred; the conspiracy theories; the runaway consumerism; the mass extinction.
We are in the interregnum between the dying of the old society and the birth pangs of a new one. Morbid symptoms rush at us from every angle. Their faces are strangely familiar but yet so puzzling. The Trumps, Johnsons, Bolsonaros and Salvinis are morbid at best. Their ascendancy cannot but herald the beginnings of the long awaited new.