Book Review

On Decline by Andrew Potter

I spent time yawning at an out-of-touch Gen X screed

Written early September 2021, about a book published late August 2021 !!! #contemporary #newbooks #hashtag !!!

“The centre will not hold” is a phrase whose meaning I’ve never quite got a handle on, knowing as I do that it’s a phrase used as the title of Griffin Dunne’s documentary about Joan Didion

When we consider “the centre”, politically, it is the source of opinions and actions self-described as “sensible”, “pragmatic”, “realistic” and – crucially for its advocates’ personal mythologies – “benevolent”. The centre is where Joan Didion sits, is where Justin Trudeau sits, is where Keir Starmer sits, is where I – during my brief period as a regular blogger for minor British news websites half a decade ago – positioned myself. Thank god I grew out of that naïve, ignorant, masturbatory mindset.

Because, to expand on the opening aphorism, the centre will not hold… up to serious ethical and intellectual interrogation. 

The centre swathes its opinions within a fundamentally nihilistic and delusional belief: that the capitalist system we live within is repairable and that a slightly more generous distribution of wealth, property, health and education (which is something they acknowledge/admit is needed in the world) can be brought about through minor policy changes, through individual action and without challenging – and ultimately dismantling – the entire status quo.

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Society is in decline, Andrew Potter announces: economic growth is stagnating, fertility rates are collapsing, “right wing” politics is triumphing in ballot boxes internationally and – of course, though (of course) less importantly to Potter and his Gen X contemporaries (who seem to be gambling – as the Boomers have – that they’ll be dead before the worst of it happens) – the natural world is beyond a tipping point towards total ecological collapse.

For Potter and his peers (imagine a Led by Donkeys voice in Canadian-accented prose), the election of Donald Trump was a tragedy, the British referendum to leave the EU was a tragedy, the projection that birth rates are so low in Spain and Japan that their populations will have halved before the end of the century is a tragedy. That “Enlightenment Values” like “reason” and other tepid decencies are being abandoned is a tragedy, that the right demonises and others minority group after minority group is a tragedy, but that the left “alienates” “ordinary people” through its “policing” of language, its overreaching “political correctness” and – frequently used by Potter without either inverted commas or analysis of the term’s context and implied meanings – “virtue signalling”.

What Potter does is agree wholesale with the Angela Nagle theory found in Kill All Normies (Zer0 Books, 2017), that the alt-right gains its power from being anti-hegemonic, the “outsider” status afforded to racists and sexists feeding provocative provocateurs with an “anti-establishment” cool, which is an idea so rooted in a fundamentally conservative worldview that it’s hard to argue against without hitting a wall.

What Potter (and Nagle a few years earlier) completely fails to understand is that there is no validity to their claim that the rise of neofascism is due to the normalisation of tolerance, to global (but not all!) legislatures banning hate speech and discriminatory employment practices.

Adherents to the “alt-right” are not outsiders – they might be losers, they might be young or poor or uneducated or otherwise somehow less empowered than other people), but they represent – and their opinions echo – the political and capital interests of the long-term elites. 

Alt-right ideologies, with their essentialised racism and sexism, are inherent ideals of “the establishment”, of the historic, socially and fiscally conservative groups of people who own land, buildings, businesses and infrastructure networks. That these people – predominantly young, white, men whose parents probably own (at least) their own home – that these people are feeling and responding to a disenfranchisement is evidence of wider failings: it’s the smarmy centrist nonsense opinion that everyone to their left is a reefer-addled middle class do-gooder and everyone to their right is either rich enough and powerful enough so that self-interest can justify their cruelty, or they’re reefer-addled morons who would stop voting against their own self interest if the left were just a bit less preachy. I’m paraphrasing, but the centrists essentially say this: The poor who vote for right wing parties are doing so because they’d rather use racialised and homophobic slurs than accept better healthcare etc from a goodie goodie.

This is what they think: Potter genuinely writes in his book that continued economic growth is the best way to fight against racism. He dismisses the idea that economic growth shouldn’t be a key government metric as only someone from a generation of homeowners can. 

No, it is not good when it is believed that the prices of things must inevitably rise. 

No, it is not good when these rising prices rise out of pace with wages. 

No, it is not good that our schools and our universities are so (intentionally?) bad at teaching critical/analytical thinking and empathy and economics that vast swathes of some of (all of?) the richest countries in the world are able to see and feel the diminishment of their own economic power, and the economic near-disenfranchisement of their own younger generations, and choose to not think about and notice who is getting richer at their expense, but instead hurl their confusion and rage and fear towards people more vulnerable than they are.

That the average lived experience, the average life, is getting harder and more expensive for the majority of people is true. It is a fact that buying property without free money, incredible good luck or making dangerous personal sacrifices (e.g. living somewhere rubbish) is ever more fantastical.

There is no way out of this tailspin if we stay in the vehicle. Socialised healthcare and social care, improved education and a full switch to renewable energy, the freedom and comfort to self actualise, none of this is possible if all we do is tweak the system.

The system is not set up for the many, and it’s been tweaked and tweaked and tweaked until more and more people realise that the world doesn’t give a fuck if they live, die or – like so many of us (I’m including myself here) – don’t really do either.

Capitalism will destroy the planet before it destroys itself: we will be eaten alive if we don’t continue to do every little thing we can to remake it in a different kind of image.

Yes, everything is getting worse – but it is going to get worse before it hits rock bottom, and there is no way the billionaires and the oligarchs and the monopolists are going to let us go back to Andrew Potter’s halcyon, paternalistic and imaginary glorious, fair, capitalistic past.

The sooner we get this thing destroyed, the sooner other, better, freer, people can build something good where once our society stood.

Order direct from Biblioasis via this link if you’d like it

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