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“Danny Boyle’s industrial nightmare isn’t simply the most important piece of television in years – it forces us to rethink our entire economic system.”
Last Friday night the Olympic Opening Ceremony was beamed around the world to an estimated 700 million viewers. It was a spectacle designed to show off Britain to the rest of the world. But before the surreal Dadaist musical showcase, the homage to children’s literature, the tribute to the NHS, and the mawkish wimperings of a saggy septuagenarian, was the most important piece of television since the 1969 moon landings showed human beings leaving the Earth. And as the audience left the Olympic Stadium once the ceremony was over, there was still one shadow looming over the event: the shadow of Karl Marx.
Danny Boyle’s ‘Pandaemonium’ segment of the Olympic Ceremony told the story of Britain’s Industrial Revolution. During this time, untold millions of workers were forced out of the countryside and into densely packed cities and towns; the modern factory was created; industrial labour outstripped agricultural labour as the defining mode of work; and the landscape of the world was forever changed. In visualising this, Boyle’s ‘Pandaemonium’ was stunning. The construction of towering edifices in the Olympic Stadium, the ‘dark satanic mills’ of William Blake, were simply jaw-dropping. However, much more than an indictment of the social and ecological devastation of the industrial age, it forced us to question the history and ethics of our current economic system, and to consider once again the possible alternatives to this. Most notably the alternative proposed by Karl Marx.
Ever since the atrocities 20th century communism committed in Marx’s name, he has been shunned as a thinker by anyone worth their human rights salt. In the 1960’s, in response to the Old Leftism of workers and revolution, came the New Leftism; an ideology more concerned with multiculturalism, tolerance, and difference. Instead of reading Capital and working through the concept of Permanent Revolution, this new Leftism took as it’s theoretical bedrock Foucauldian aporias and Derridean deconstructionist antinomies, a post-colonial Leftism that discovered the importance of social inequality compared to the Old Left’s fundamental focus on economic inequality. This New Left no longer wanted to overthrow the system through dissident activity outside of the state, but to work within it, to take over the guard tower and to subvert institutions in the name of fairness from the inside.
There have been successes: Multiculturalism, while being a somewhat temporary solution to a more fundamental problem, has made the UK a better place. It is unthinkable today that someone standing for election could write on a poster, as a Conservative standing for election in 1964 did, ‘If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour’. And television shows such as ‘Love Thy Neighbour’, a show in which the black couple next door are berated with a series of racial epithets such as jungle bunny and nig-nog, are looked back on with anger and disgust. With regards to women’s struggles it is a complex picture. Most would agree that women now have more opportunities than they did at any other time, even though many women are now left in the uncomfortable position of the ‘Double Burden’, where they are able to work full-time but still do the lion‘s share of parenting. It is a similarly complex picture with the LGBT movement; many now enjoy more rights than ever, however this is tinged by the prospect that homophobia and bigotry hasn’t really been eradicated, but just moved outside of the public sphere and into the private.
For all these successes, however, there is one issue New Leftism hasn’t been able to overcome, that of financial inequality. In 1985 the top 10% of UK earners earned around eight times more than the poorest 10%. In 2012, the figure is now 12:1. Regarding overall wealth in the UK, the top 10% are around 100 times more wealthy than the bottom 10%. And this trend is international. Even in that socialist haven of Sweden income disparity has progressed from 5:1 in the 1980’s to 6:1 today. These figures paint a picture of an economic system that is fundamentally uncontrollable. This however, is only the tip of the iceberg.
As we all know, three years ago capitalism went into meltdown, and was only saved from implosion by an artificial injection of trillions of dollars by collective governmental action. It is also common knowledge that this was not enough to save many countries. It has hit Greece the hardest out of any EU member state, whose dubious government has now implemented a series of deficit reduction mechanisms that are crippling the populace. However, even Greece’s thanatotic position is nothing when the economic landscape is surveyed globally.
But this is something we all know. We know it is terrible, and that charity is not enough to cover it. But, we say, it is the only system we have. Communism ended in the murder of millions of people through famine and Terror. Do we really want to go back to that? But with millions dying in Africa from HIV/AIDS, famine and lack of clean water a question has to be asked: When 62 million people died in the USSR, we said that 62 million people died under the economic regime of Communism. Is it wrong to say that the millions of people dying from poverty and disease today are dying under capitalism?
Since the fall of the USSR and Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of the End of History, questions such as these have been viewed as not just naïve but positively gauche. However, just as the shadow of Marx loomed over the Olympic Opening Ceremony, so too, has it come to loom over academia again. There is a new wave of thinkers who are concerned with such problems as how to solve economic inequality, and how to conceive of a true democracy, one in which the top 1% do not control 40% of global assets, and even more political power.
There is Alain Badiou, a radical philosopher who currently holds that dubious position of ‘Most Important French Philosopher in the World’. There is Richard Wolff, a one time Yale economics professor, who appeared on the American mainstream talk-show Charlie Rose last week to discuss the failures of capitalism. And, of course, Slavoj Žižek, whose Lacano-psychoanalytic societal critique is only gaining momentum. People are beginning to question things that have gone unquestioned for a very long time, and philosophy as a discipline is growing once again. A good thing, as philosophy is the longest conversation humanity has ever had with itself on the subject of what we as a species want out of life, a conversation too important to lose.
It is true that the Left does not currently have an alternative. 20th century Communism was a total failure, and the Left, up till now, has been unable to conceive of another form of society. However, it is precisely these questions that must be worked through if we want to progress. We need an alternative at least theoretically. An alternative that will stir us from our dogmatic slumber, and force us to talk as a global community, about how we want to live.
And that is why Boyle’s Pandaemonium, with it’s breathtaking sights of so many labourers, so few top hats, was so important. It was aesthetically stunning, historically important, but most importantly, it was a sharp reminder that economic injustice carries on to this day. Whether economic injustice can be resolved within capitalism is debateable. Personally, the possibility of an economic restructuring is preferable to a violent revolution. What isn’t debateable, however, is the need for change.