Often, I can go cartwheeling my way through many days before I remember that the global economy is in the state of permanent downfall. Ignorant and slow-witted though I am, this seems like something I should be forced to take notice of. How can I forget then? Its not like I live in Twin Peaks here; I live in London, Europe’s great metropolis whose modus operandi is information overload. Yet despite bombardment from the TV and the Metro, billboards to Capital radio, nothing takes a minute to say‘Dear citizen, just to remind you, your world is collapsing.’
Twenty years ago Francis Fukuyama told us that history had ended, and while the crash of 2008 only further exposed that lie, almost nothing in popular discourse ever reflects this chance. Our televisions remain an endless stream of royal family celebrations and reality shows. The papers are packed with daily notifications on the movements of R-Patz and K-Stew. This distance between popular culture and daily reality wasn’t always so great: previously, poignant art and culture would bear the battle scars of its era. Without being overtly political, the works of a Dickens or a Hemingway still stand as authentic pictures of the times from which they emerged. Chaplin packed all the excess and injustice of inter-war capitalism into his ‘little tramp’; Jones, Jagger and Richards embodied the confidence of baby boomers frantically tearing down social taboos. Nowadays, the opening riff to ‘Gimme Shelter’ can be played over images from the Vietnam War or Civil Rights marches and fits perfectly. Will future documentaries on Afghanistan or Occupy be soundtracked by Bruno Mars and the girl who sang ‘Call Me Maybe?’ If sport is, as the ancient Greeks felt, the great metaphor for life, then what do our current icons tell us about ourselves? No one thinks of Muhammed Ali without thinking of the simultaneous explosion of black consciousness. Jesse Owens foreshadowed the global defiance of Hitler’s ideology. Currently, we have the likes of ‘Money’ Mayweather who, despite his phenomenal talent, espouses a materialism that in this historical context borders on the obscene.
The response often given is that it is not the job of sports stars or pop stars to engage with the world’s problems. This didn’t stop The Sex Pistols, Sophocles or Shakespeare, all insanely popular in their day. However, it is true: nobody wants to see footballer Wayne Rooney try to end his next interview with a critique of the influence of finance in modern politics. No one wants anymore Band Aid. And of course alongside the Beatles and Dylan were the Cliff Richards and Englebert Humperdinks. Yet the banal stars of yesteryear appeared to be the ones who were just naturally boring. Today, its as though we have all sworn an oath to keep the decreasing living standards a close-kept secret. After splitting the past year between the U.K and the U.S, it was startling to end the year by travelling back to Africa, and seeing how strictly, from this outside perspective, Western culture refuses to acknowledge any of the recent turmoil. Life for everyone in the U.K and the U.S is believed to be just what is portrayed on MTV. The reality is not this. It’s record unemployment, especially amongst the young. It’s the eradication of a job security, even when you do gain employment, as more labour rights are sacrificed at the temple of neo-liberalism. The reality is ladder of higher education being pulled up as university becomes increasingly unaffordable. The reality is that the same Western youth portrayed as all-singing, all-dancing BFFs are going to be the first post-war generation to have a significantly lower standard of living than their parents.
The ‘age of austerity’ is likely the new status quo rather than a temporary glitch in the matrix.Yet society as a whole appears to be paralysed in a collective state of denial, a determination to maintain business as usual while no one mentions the emperor’s robe has slipped, and we stand face-to-face with his greying bollocks, swinging low, swinging low like that old sweet chariot. An old-school Marxist would look at British socialite Pippa Middleton’s rise as textbook false consciousness, ideological alchemy performed by power brokers to fool the working people. An optimist may see it as harmless escapism, a temporary respite from the challenges of the great recession. Or perhaps like the faith which the inhabitants of Orwell’s Airstrip One placed in their lottery, our dreams of arbitrary fame gained through reality TV are in fact the most logical response to playing a game where the outcome is rigged: try and get yourself out. The primary responses to this economic downturn have been increased apathy and increased individualism. Active social or political engagement remains faux pas. The icons we elevate no longer reflect or respond to our surroundings. Instead, they offer us an uncritical escape of these surroundings. But the disjuncture can only be stretched so far as the as the images projected around us start to seem increasingly farcical in relation to daily reality. Then, through the cracks in the framework, inspiring alternative perspectives may finally start to appear again. Until then, you can find me at home, eating Basic Super Noodles while watching Downton Abbey.