world view built on worst-case scenarios
HABITUES of second-hand bookshops tend to develop a more sceptical
sense of intellectual fashion than those who prefer their ideas
shiny and new, straight from the everlasting present of Borders
or Amazon. Amid dusty shelves and wobbling stacks one finds whole
runs of ideas and obsessions now discarded, such as lost civilisations
or those long polar ice-core samples that have become part of our
Nowhere is this more telling than in the area of the social sciences,
where dominant ideas and research programs rise and fall and rise
again over decades, leaving rich lodes of once popular works obsolete
with a turn of the calendar.
When I started to haunt such shops in the early 1980s, the ideas
that had excited and informed the '60s and '70s were at their nadir
and books that had been eagerly read classics were available in
As the Reagan-Thatcher-yuppie-greed-isgood years took off, it was
above all works of grand cultural criticism that were dumped. Works
that had inspired a revolution in thinking, such as Herbert Marcuse's
One-Dimensional Man, the Club of Rome's Limits to Growth report,
Ivan Illich's Celebration of Awareness and Paul Goodman's Growing
up Absurd had come to appear, as we all got stoned and it blew away,
irrelevant, if not a little embarrassing.
They had warned of a world tearing up its finite resources at a
furious rate, in which the variety and quality of life had been
suborned to a commodified, inhibited one-dimensional society. By
the time we got to the '80s many of their answers turned out to
have a few problems of their own, and here we were in a world of
bright lights and big cities and, well, it didn't look so bad.
The classic '60s works were part of a longer tradition of cultural
criticism stretching right back all the way, if one wanted to go
there, via authors such as John Ruskin and William Morris, Emile
Durkheim and Geoffrey Bateson, to the traditions of Theocritus and
the other pastoral poets of the Greek city-states, who wrote endless
odes about happy shepherds frolicking in a simple, uncorrupted world.
To many, the glorious dawn of cultural criticism in the '60s was,
in its twilight, more readily identifiable as traditional, rather
than revolutionary, cyclic rather than unprecedented. Two decades
further on, such concerns have once again come to the fore, prompted
by a variety of great and small events.
Yet such was the wrenching power of the fire last time, such were
its promises and disappointments, that current contributions are
haunted by a memory of embarrassing naivete, of the ease by which
the smiley face became a logo. Even those predisposed to offering
a more prophetic account of contemporary life feel a need to hedge
their bets. Such caution, and what haunts it, is exemplified in
Robyn Davidson's Quarterly Essay on nomadism.
Davidson, a life-long travelling writer, best known for her book
Tracks, has written a highly readable and sometimes moving account
of encounters with various nomadic peoples, with an explicit attempt
to offer some reflections on our way of life - and a concerted attempt
to disown any sense that what she is offering is a program for another
way to live.
Yet whether one agrees with or is exasperated by her argument that
we must look to other cultures for solutions to an unsustainable
way of life, many will be irritated by her idealised view of those
Beginning with a fairly outdated historical account identifying
the coming of agriculture with the "fall", Davidson moves
through a consideration of the Aborigines she grew up near, but
did not know, in rural Queensland, a journey to a horse fair in
Tibet and, most substantially, a period travelling with the Rabari
people of Rajasthan in India.
Having early on sketched out a more limited purview-"I do
not mean to say that we should (or could) return to traditional
nomadic economies. I do mean . . . that it would be foolish to disregard
or underrate (them)"-the essay itself is a process of falling
into a deep romance with her subjects.
"I never once saw one of them show discourtesy to another
human being, no matter how lowly, nor cruelty to another form of
life," she writes of the Rabari. "Although they were proud
of themselves as a caste, they seemed to exist somewhere outside
the more rigid hierarchies of settled people. They were aware of
the air of freedom and liberality surrounding them." Not only
that, but they retained a pre-Edenic innocence that other cultures
have lost: "Their success depended upon formal generosity,
tolerance and honesty among migrating individuals, families, dangs
(small groups), castes and religions."
At times, Davidson slips into a near Rudolph Valentino mode in
which the nomads are a glamorous aristocratic other: "It was
something they identified as their own, which made them different
from (and I'm sure they would tacitly agree, superior to) the peasantry."
At other times they are "comfortable with uncertainty and
contradiction. They are cosmopolitan in outlook, because they have
to deal with difference, negotiate difference. They do not focus
on long-term goals so much as continually accommodate themselves
to change. They are less concerned with the accumulation of wealth
and more concerned with the accumulation of knowledge . . . Adaptability,
flexibility, mental agility, the ability to cope with flux. These
traits shy away from absolutes, and strive for an equilibrium that
blurs rigid boundaries." You can almost see them walking down
Glebe Point Road, Brunswick Street or any groovy inner-city locale.
By now you can see the denouement coming. It is we, the knowledge
and culture workers who are the true heirs of these insouciant nobles:
"And increasingly, there are people like me, who live in several
countries, have complex identities and feel allied to more than
one culture. We live in what Edward Said called 'a generalised condition
of homelessness'. These new forms of nomadism will shape the culture
of the new century in unpredictable ways."
For all the genuine passion and knowledge in Davidson's account
of her time with the Rabari, the account of nomadism as a whole
is a farrago. Though such cultures have many qualities to be envious
of, you don't have to know much about non-agricultural peoples (and
my knowledge is confined to second-hand acquaintance with Inuit
culture) to know they have a harshness we would find intolerable.
The abandonment of the weak or ill, infanticide, shunning, scapegoating,
exile, summary judgment, violence, xenophobia, feuds, splits, slighted
honour and retribution - all are essential to their survival as
coherent and mobile peoples. And they issue from the same place
as the qualities more attractive to a contemporary audience.
Nor does the equation of nomadism with contemporary atomised hyperindividualism
ring true. The most important point, surely, about nomads is not
that they move, but that they move together, and that the identity
of each person in the group is bound up in those of the others to
a greater degree than we would find possible or desirable.
Both short and long-distance nomadic groups travel within a known
world, a world in which part and whole - landscape, flora, fauna,
weather - are knitted together, organised and made vivid by myth,
totem systems, taboo, kinship rules and complex language systems.
Though early anthropology was wont to see these systems as more
stable than they now appear, and although contact with modernity
has created hybrid systems, the fact is that nomads have more in
common with non-mobile, substantially non-agricultural people -
Pacific Islanders, for example - than with mobile moderns.
In all traditional cultures, stories of solitary wandering are
either cautionary tales of exile - the worst punishment imaginable
- or of the wanderer's triumphant return home. What the contemporary
traveller seeks is repeated strangeness, the exciting, frightening,
delicious process whereby the utterly alien starts to become known,
without losing its alien quality.
The encounter between the traveller and the nomad is not an encounter
between two nomads, and to imagine it as such obscures the real
difference between the intimacy and connectedness that Davidson
finds in the Rabari people, and the anomic disconnection of contemporary
life that she sees it as an answer to. For anyone in sympathy with
some of Davidson's conclusions about the contemporary world, it's
an enormously irritating piece, its initial cautionary tone no more
than a figleaf for the worst sort of narcissistic identification,
whereby a particular modern social class finds, via the Third World,
its own values reflected as those of essential humanity.
But for all the certainty of this and other books centred on the
one big idea - "something has gone wrong" is how Michael
Bywater sums it up in Big Babies, his critique of contemporary media
and consumerism-induced adult infantilism - is anything distinctive
really happening? A publishing boom in this area - two books titled
Affluenza (by Australian political theorist Clive Hamilton and,
more recently, British psychologist Oliver James), Shelley Gare's
Triumph of the Airheads, James Hawes's satirical novel Speak for
England, James Martin's The Meaning of the 21st Century are the
standouts - would suggest there is.
Or are we merely in the throes of a new transition between one
social form and the next, one in which the new world, seen from
the perspective of the old, looks chaotic and bizarre? After all,
anyone essaying cultural criticism has to be chastened by memories
of vicars denouncing the corrupting effect of cinema or the widespread
belief that young girls reading novels represented the end of the
For sociologist Frank Furedi, much cultural criticism that focuses
on the allegedly disastrous trends within modernity is less an expression
of intellectual agency than it is a symptom of a deeper social and
historical process whereby Western peoples have lost the power to
think of themselves as capable of collectively shaping and controlling
their environment, and thereby making History, the capital H signifying
not simply events, but the capacity to qualitatively change and
improve the human condition.
Hungarian-born Furedi is one of the more high-profile public intellectuals
in Britain, keeping up a stream of articles, essays and books addressing
a set of themes uppermost in contemporary Western life, most particularly
the amorphous, all-encompassing phenomenon of fear, whose changing
nature seems to be reshaping our idea of the relationship between
humanity and the world.
Originally the theoretician of a group called the Revolutionary
Communist Party, part of the rich fauna of the ultra-Left in '80s
Britain, Furedi in his work was always concerned with understanding
the conditions and possibilities by which real change happens.
The failure of Marxism to revive itself as a liberating movement
once the dead weight of the USSR had vanished prompted him to argue
that we are in a new historical period in which the core humanism
of Marx's ideas - the promethean capacity of human beings to shape
their destiny - was no longer expressed or carried forth by class
Instead the RCP, now dissolved and by various stages reconstituted
as the Spiked group, began to focus on a series of what its leadership
saw as regressive cultural themes and movements. Furedi argued that
there was a need to regroup the people and forces, from Left and
Right (in Australia, he has been a guest of the Centre For Independent
Studies), who believed that humanity should "play for high
In particular, this has amounted to a critical attitude to the
green movement, for an alleged underlying loss of faith in human
control of nature, and also to much of the recent commentary of
the Big-Brother-is-the-end-of-civilisation stripe, arguing this
usually is a form of conservative elitism masquerading as critique.
Yet nor is Furedi part of the anti-critical cultural studies movement,
arguing instead that much of the current "stalled" nature
of history results from the collapse, within a media society, of
the webs of association that formed the underlying social connectivity
that made class politics possible.
Once people feel isolated and atomised, fear rather than solidarity
becomes the primary social medium, whether expressed as distrust
for science, an appetite for apocalyptic scenarios, panics about
pedophilia and other social "monsters" and so on: a world
in which the worst-case scenario has become the default setting.
Furedi's work, especially his much-praised recent book Where Have
All the Public Intellectuals Gone?, tends to be claimed by conservatives
as conservative, by libertarians as libertarian, but he has never
made much secret of the fact that it was about recapturing a sort
of historical audacity implicit of the type, though not of the form,
last seen in its purest incarnation in October 1917 in Russia.
The object is not simply to push things forward but to hope that
qualitative change in technology and economy will produce a transformation
that will take us into a radically new future. From that perspective,
diverse critical commentaries are united by a limited view of what
human beings are capable of, a perception of new problems through
the lens of old ideas, a fear of our capacities and desires.
One of the most important aspects of Furedi's work is the manner
in which it goes beyond the narrow confines of a single perspective,
which constrains the other works discussed, to offer a more general
diagnosis of our cultural-political condition and the manner in
which it shapes our perception of particular problems.
Much of his earlier output, such as in the '80s and '90s, was concerned
with how the guts had been knocked out of the Western project by
20th-century events. Prior to World War II, imperialism had been
grounded on a racism that gave an assurance to its capacity to subjugate
other peoples (and it's probably a measure of the times that I need
to clarify that this wasn't a Niall Fergusonesque defence of imperialism,
but a Marxist analysis of its character).
The Holocaust and the war had put this selfbelief in crisis, only
partly assuaged by the defining dualism of the Cold War. By the
time the latter ceased, structural changes to social life, a loosening
of "webs of shared meaning" by a media-dominated society,
had undermined the class politics of Right and Left.
The combined effects of the failure of the Western Left, revelation
of environmental problems and the enlightenment critique of postmodernism
had put notions of freedom, rationalism and human capacity in the
shade. For Furedi, the war on terror is really among the lesser
effects of a fear culture; far more important is, say, the widespread
popularity of alternative medicine, to the extent that insurers
and public health bodies will provide for it, and the loss of faith
in a scientific medicine held to be "invasive" or "toxic".
And all such small-picture worries are mirrored in the big picture
of the environment, and global warming in particular. Neither a
supporter nor a sceptic as regards the evidence for global warming,
Furedi's argument is that our response to it - one of despair, and
a barely disguised millenarianism - is determined by a culture of
fear, rather than a clear-headed response to the evidence.
In earlier days, Furedi and Spiked were robust in their critique
of such approaches; more recently, such as in his book The Culture
of Fear Revisited, there is a deal more circumspection about the
truth or otherwise of the more alarming forecasts, but the cultural
critique of our response to it remains.
Yet while Furedi is right to connect the large and the small and
to see the issue of global warming as one principle focus of contemporary
dilemmas, the issue is one that also points to a contradiction in
his work, indeed of all of those who interpret widespread disquiet
about global warming from a culturalist perspective.
We have long since passed the point where the most alarming scenarios
are coming from the wilder fringes of the green movement; today
it is world-class scientists such as James Lovelock (in The Revenge
of Gaia) and E. O. Wilson (in The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life
on Earth) who are suggesting that an irreversible destruction of
the biosphere is well advanced.
If your political project is to restart a genuine humanism with
confidence in its capacity to bend nature to its will through scientific
excellence, then you have a problem if the most excellent scientists
tell you that we are creating potentially catastrophic problems
far beyond our forseeable capacity to quell or mitigate. Once that
occurs, then a culturalist analysis of such movements reverses on
itself and begins to look irrationalist, while more pessimistic
scenarios start to look relatively clear-eyed.
A more persuasive account of their connection, and by far the most
thorough-going reading of the present period, comes from Zygmunt
Bauman, for a long time professor of sociology at the University
of Leeds. Bauman's work is voluminous, but one metaphor has become
central: that of "liquidity". For Bauman, our current
state is one in which there has been a radical shift in the manner
in which society and selfhood are constituted.
In a process we have barely begun to recognise, we have passed
from a society in which a whole series of dynamic elements and flows
- the movements of individual selfhood, the movement of capital,
values formation - were anchored within a static framework that
guaranteed a degree of stable social reproduction.
In recent decades, the flow has become the norm, for the first
time in history, and many apparently unconnected phenomena can be
explained as the effects of this liquidity.
Capital flows around the world and when the tide goes out, as in
the contemporary West, it leaves a section of the population as
a useless surplus. Subjectivity changes and the dominant dilemma
for the individual becomes a sort of flowing towards meaning, always
knowing that any achieved will be provisional. Life becomes fragmentary
and strategic. Big Brother is not the end of this civilisation,
but its epic poem, an unfolding and ritual retelling of life's shifting
uncertainty and isolation, the ever-present threat that we will
go down the drain.
Bauman's idea of liquidity has similarities with Furedi's notion
of "shared webs of meaning", and also of the notion, explored
here in Arena magazine and journal, of a society ungrounded by having
all human relations drawn through its most abstracted levels, such
as the market and the media.
It is the change that writers such as Bywater, who suggests that
the way to deal with an infantilising culture is to ignore it, can
describe yet not understand, because they try to read them through
older, exhausted notions of liberalism and conservatism.
When you live in a world of media and meaning flows, the ideas
of John Stuart Mill or Friedrich Hayek are as relevant as debate
about the doctrine of the divine right of kings.
Bauman's account of this new world in Liquid Fear is so powerful
because he has connected it to the shifting role that life and death
plays within any culture, and how it manifests in ours. However
much civilisational criticism forms part of a genre stretching back
into the centuries, what is apparent is that the capacity exists
to destroy the civilisation from within, whether by nuclear death,
biosphere destruction or what Bauman calls "metaphorical death",
the manner by which human connection becomes so fleeting, unpatterned
and attenuated that the sense of a living other dies away.
For Bauman, "all human cultures can be decoded as ingenious
contraptions calculated to make life with the awareness of mortality
liveable". Once death comes to the heart of a culture, the
search for immortality becomes individual rather than social, and
thus fame and celebrity become driving mass obsessions, and especially
of fame "lotteries" such as reality TV. Deep down, Bauman
would argue, we all know that globalisation is on an unsustainable
trajectory and that global warming is the most visible sign and
symbol of that process, but that knowledge is sublimated through
every aspect of our life.
What appear to be disparate effects-say, the normalisation of plastic
surgery for teenagers at one end, and wars for control of oil reserves
at the other - are really shards of the same shattered vessel, our
cup which hath overfloweth. As denial comes to the centre of the
culture, two social tasks, steering rational action and reproducing
an ideology, start to be confused for each other. The production
of values is rendered cynical and strategic (the knowing emptiness
of Paris Hilton) and planning comes to be based on illusion and
fantasy (the empty knowingness of George W. Bush).
It seems to me that it is this aspect of our culture that will
expand in the years to come. We are in the strange cultural situation
whereby the core process at the heart of our civilisation - scientific
rationality - overwhelmingly argues that we are undermining, or
already have undermined, the basis of life. And yet there seems
no way in which a real process of cultural change (as opposed to
near-useless "carbon neutralising") might develop on a
global scale, before visible and disastrous effects start to concentrate
the collective human mind.
This is not to suggest that the case for global warming has been
utterly, unequivocally proven, or that the (fairly rare) honest
sceptics should cease to offer alternative accounts. It is simply
to make the cultural point that the phenomenon has been taken into
people's lives as a truth, and that the utter state of denial in
which we find ourselves cannot but have a series of corrosive cultural
effects. After all, if even the mid-range scenarios prove correct,
then a vast amount of current human effort, the megacities, airports,
highways, stadiums, plane fleets and resorts, amount to the most
phenomenally futile project in human history.
Simply decrying "apocalyptic" thinking may serve short-term
political ends, but it is ultimately pointless if large numbers
of people come to feel that such a scenario is a wellfounded possibility.
What we will face culturally in the immediate term is a strange
and possibly self-destructive period in which there is the building
of a movement that believes a truly radical degree of cultural change
is necessary for human advancement, while a majority, convinced
that such a task is beyond collective human agency, pursue the creation
of what, by Bauman's terms, would be an anti-culture. It seems likely
that such an interim period will not be transformed until the first
large-scale and unequivocal effects of global warming occur (or
until the hypothesis is weakened by their non-occurrence).
The climate records written in those layered polar ice-core samples
might then be the model by which we judge those shafts and ridges
of old cultural critique in the second-hand bookshops: as part of
a continuity with present and future volumes, to which our wandering
attention comes and goes, but which measures, in a manner often
fallible and foolish, the dimensions of a crisis deeper than we
care to acknowledge.
published in The Australian, 7 February 2007