This is our truth, tell us yours
My brilliant accomplice in blogging lifted the veil a little on our private dystopia that we have shared over a period of time. She linked that world, a world of hierarchical BDSM and judicial interventions in lifestyles and sex roles, to her exploration of the lack of empathy that enables utopian visions to become dystopian from another perspective. (Incidentally this diary piece in the LRB, about the Black Panthers in Algiers provides some insights on the way in which revolutionary organizations can lose momentum and their focus on principles.)
When the dystopia I share with Jem came into being it wasn’t intentional. I wrote a vignette that was intended to arouse and amuse Jem; the back story, the philosophy, even the legal codes and the geography of it came later. It all came from looking at the vignette I had written, and asking myself, what kind of society could make this happen, and how did it come into being?
For someone as steeped in apocalyptic fiction as myself, the how was easy. I even gave it a name, anthrosaster, short for anthropocentric global warming flood disaster. To live in Northumberland, with a low lying coast where some people, apparently, can’t cope with something as simple as a tide timetable, is to be acutely aware of the likely impact of a rise in sea levels. Our society is less resilient now than it has been for hundreds of years, how would it survive anthrosaster, if at all?
Jem and I have also lived through a period of our history where human rights have been shown to not be universal, but conditional, negotiable and, ultimately, utterly dependent on the power of others to either enforce or elide them. So it’s hardly surprising if we find believable a future in which human rights are very different, and much more clearly negotiable. For the people of Iraq, or Syria, for marginalized communities like trans people, those experiences, of the disdain of others for basic human rights, are lived experiences in the here and now. I am even, in my bleakest moments, sceptical about the very concept of universal human rights, since all too often they seem to be about the privileged defining for the voiceless what their human rights aren’t, as much as what they are.
The saving grace of our dystopia, if you like, is that we wrote into it, alongside draconian powers and a certain cruelty, a vengeful disdain for hypocrisy, and a modulated tolerance of dissent and difference. It’s a dystopia where autonomous communities are tolerated provided they state their rules, and stick to them. It doesn’t take much thinking about our current society to see where that principle might have come from.
I’m an intersectional socialist. Each time I try to picture a future better than our current society, I ask myself not how we get there, but how we make sure that the place we get to is not a mirage, that we do not end up on a perpetual journey that justifies ignoring the missed steps along the way. Amongst this blog’s principles is a deep and abiding mistrust of elites and vanguards; it is hardly going to be a surprise to anyone who knows us if I say that one of the themes, the narrative threads of our dystopia is about how an elite renews itself and tests its current practice against its founding principles. A certain degree of reflection on past decisions and current challenges is something that is essential to intersectional practice.
Or to put it another way, we have to think it through. One of the reasons why I’ve abstained from blogging about the current election is because, frankly, nothing is going to be added to the stock of human knowledge by my hot takes on whether Diane Abott is really as stupid as she seems (she’s not, but opportunism makes fools of all of us) or Theresa May as shallow as she appears (she is, because high office has become a reward for political manouvering, not deep thought or strongly held principles.) I’ve had to think that disengagement through, and acknowledge that I have reached a tipping point, where the glibness and the glassy certainties of soundbite culture leave me mildly revolted. So if I haven’t written about politics, or May, enough during this short campaign, it’s partly because during the long campaigns, the months and years when there wasn’t an election pending, I have said my piece.
Labour organizers used to say to each other that during the short campaign, the period between the election being called and polling day, you don’t change people’s minds, you just change the turnout. As a socialist I tend to believe in long wave politics – we are reaping the harvest now of the Thatcher and Blair years – it’s time to win the debate for the next thirty years, not the next four weeks. That means thinking it through.