2016: You Want It Darker

‘As things stand, I don’t believe we will get a story worth hearing until we witness a culture broken open by its own consequence.’ Martin Shaw, Dark Mountain: Issue 7

The regular mechanisms of political narration are breaking down. The pollsters lose confidence in their methods, the pundits struggle to offer authoritative explanations for events that they laughed off as wild improbabilities only months before.

It’s a measure of how badly things have broken that, over the past year or two, members of the strange crew that meets around Dark Mountain have found ourselves filling the gap. I’m thinking of posts we’ve written in our various corners of the internet that were read and shared far more widely than most of us are used to, seemingly because they helped readers find their bearings in a time of deepening disorientation.

There’s a role for this kind of writing now that seems clearer than it did eight years ago, when we started this project. That’s why, today, we are launching a fundraising campaign – asking for your help to build and launch a new online publication. It won’t replace the Dark Mountain books, but it will run alongside them and provide an online home for writing that seeks – as my co-founder, Paul Kingsnorth put it at the start of this series – ‘to make sense of things, and to examine our stories in their proper perspective.’

At this point, if you want to head straight for our fundraising page and make a donation, then be my guest – but in the rest of this post, I want to make a few suggestions about why this kind of writing matters now, based on what Dark Mountain has taught me over the past eight years.

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Let’s start with a few of the pieces I mentioned – the chances are you already read some of these, but setting them alongside one another, something else comes into view:

These are posts that got shared and reblogged and quoted and seemed to travel halfway around the internet. Mostly, they were written for our personal blogs or websites – but the authors are editors or regular contributors here at Dark Mountain. You can see places where we spark off each other’s ideas, as well as significant differences in perspective. If you read them all, you’ll probably find some that jive with you and others that jar. But I want to point to some common ground.

For one thing, while we draw on different political traditions, this is writing that starts a couple of steps back from the familiar terrain of political debate and analysis. I’m reminded of an answer I gave, years ago, when asked if Dark Mountain was a political project: ‘I think there may be times when it is necessary to withdraw from today’s politics, in order to do the thinking that could make it possible for there to be a politics the day after tomorrow.’ Or as Paul put it at the opening of this series, ‘Sometimes you have to go to the edges to get some perspective on the turmoil at the heart of things. Doing so is not an abnegation of public responsibility: it is a form of it.’

If you start exploring the work of any of these writers, you’ll find that mythology is a recurring reference point, a deep element in how we make sense of things. At the end of his post from the morning after the Brexit vote, Martin Shaw wrote, ‘Television, radio and internet will be able to tell you all the above-ground implications of what’s just taken place.’ When these surface accounts fail to satisfy, though, there’s a hunger that is fed by the underground currents of old stories.

One of the things that marks out this writing, then, is a willingness to enter territory that we could call ‘liminal’. It’s a term that comes from the study of ritual, given to the middle phase of a right of passage: the preliminaries are over, you have shed the skin of an old reality, but not yet acquired the new skin that would allow you to return to the everyday world. The liminal is the space of the threshold, with all the vulnerability and potential of transition: the costliness of letting go, with no guarantee of what will come after. The liminal phase of a ritual is the moment of greatest danger – or rather, ritual is a safety apparatus built around the liminal. Whichever, the liminal is where the work gets done, where the change happens.

So here’s the first suggestion I want to make: if this writing is filling a gap left by the failure of more conventional kinds of political narration, it’s because it is able to operate in the territory of the liminal, and these are liminal times.

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It’s not just the broadening audience for this writing that points to its timeliness. The past year also saw more conventional voices getting drawn into the territory that Dark Mountain has been exploring.

Take Alex Evans, a former advisor to the UK government and the United Nations, who just wrote a book called ‘The Myth Gap’. After a career based on belief in the power of ‘evidence, data and policy proposals’, his experience of global climate negotiations brought him to a crisis, and to a sense of the need for something more than facts and reasoned arguments. ‘We’ve lost the old stories that used to help us make sense of the world,’ he says, ‘but without coming up with new ones.’ And he quotes Jung: ‘The man who thinks he can live without a myth is like one uprooted, having no true link either with the past, or the ancestral life within him, or yet with contemporary society.’

Or check out the series on ‘spirituality and visionary politics’ that the political strategist Ronan Harrington edited for Open Democracy last year – and Jonathan Rowson’s report on spirituality for the RSA. ‘Scratch climate change confusion long enough,’ writes Rowson, ‘and you may find our denial of death underneath.’

There’s lots to say about these examples, but for now I just want to take a couple of points from them. First, that the call of the liminal is making itself felt ‘above ground’. But then, that there is a danger of wanting to jump straight to rebirth, to promise bright visions and new positive narratives. Evans draws on Jung, but I’m not clear how much room there is here for the shadow – nor for the loss and uncertainty, the darkness and disorientation that are the price for entering the liminal.

Then again, by the end of 2016, others were ready to make the descent. I once spent an hour on stage with George Monbiot pounding me over the pessimism of Dark Mountain, so it was striking to read his list of ‘The 13 impossible crises humanity now faces’. Then you had John Harris discovering Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies. Watching experienced journalistic commentators move in the terrain that Dark Mountain has been exploring for the best part of a decade, it strikes me that there is another danger. To navigate at these depths, you need a different kind of equipment. Facts alone don’t cut it down here.

This brings me to the other aspect of Dark Mountain which may be crucial to finding our bearings within the liminal – the centrality of art and culture to the work of this project.

To navigate at these depths, you need a different kind of equipment. Facts alone don’t cut it down here.

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A man is whispering in your ears, disorienting you, playing tricks with your perception, even as you watch him alone on stage with little more than a few bottles of water and a cast of microphones. This is Simon McBurney’s The Encounter, one of the most staggering pieces of theatre I witnessed in 2016: a show that leads you into the story of a meeting between a photographer lost in the Amazon and a tribe whose world is under threat. Their response to this threat takes the form of a ritual, a journey to ‘the beginning’, which is also a deliberate bringing to an end of their culture in its current form.

The concept of liminality was first used to describe the structure of rituals like the one at the centre of The Encounter, but its application as a term for thinking about modern societies is connected to the study of theatre and performance. The anthropologist who made the connection, Victor Turner, distinguished the ‘liminal’ experiences of tribal cultures – in which ritual is a collective process for navigating moments of change – from the ‘liminoid’ experiences available in modern societies, which resemble the liminal, but are choices we opt into as individuals, like a night out at the theatre. This distinction comes with a suggestion that true liminality, the collective entry into the liminal, is not available within a complex industrial society.

Now, perhaps this has been true – but here’s my next wild suggestion. The consequences of that very complex industrial society are now bringing us to a point where we get reacquainted with true liminality. To take seriously not just what Dark Mountain has been talking about, but what Monbiot and Harris are touching on, is to recognise that we now face a crisis which has no outside. The planetary scale of our predicament makes it as much a collective experience as anything faced by the tribal cultures studied by Turner and his colleagues.

If this is the case, then where within our existing cultures do we go for knowledge about how to navigate the terrain of liminality? Not to the sources of factual authority, much as we need them, but to the places where liminoid practices have endured – to the arts, especially those forms in which people gather and share a live experience, and also (Turner would tell us) to those traditions and institutions that deal with the sacred.

In 2016, I came to the end of two years working as leader of artistic development with Riksteatern, Sweden’s touring national theatre. The collaboration came about because their artistic director had been strongly influenced by the Dark Mountain manifesto. In the workshops we ran together, writers, directors and performers met around the question of what art can do, in the face of all that we know and fear about the depth of the mess the world is in.

The answers that emerged began with a rejection of the usual invitation to put our art to use as a communications tool to deliver a message on behalf of scientists, policy-makers or activists – not out of some misplaced sense of ‘art for art’s sake’ purity, but because this isn’t how art works.

Instead, many of the possibilities I caught sight of during this work had to do with the liminal. Art can hold a space in which we move from the arm’s-length knowledge of facts, figures and projections, to the kind of knowledge that we let inside us, taking the risk that it may change us. Art can give us just enough beauty to stay with the darkness, rather than flee or shut down. Like the bronze shield given to Perseus by Athena, art and its indirect ways of knowing can allow us to approach realities which, if looked at directly, turn something inside us to stone. Art can call us back from strategic calculations about which message will play best with which target group, insisting on the tricky need for honesty – there’s a line I kept coming back to, from the playwright Mark Ravenhill, that your responsibility when you walk on stage is to be ‘the most truthful person in the room’. Art can teach us to live with uncertainty, to let go of our dreams of control. And art can hold open a space of ambiguity, refusing the binary choices with which we are often presented – not least, the choice between forced optimism and simple despair.

These are strange answers. For anyone in search of solutions, they will sound unsatisfying. But I don’t think it’s possible to endure the knowledge of the crises we face, unless you are able to draw on this other kind of knowledge and practice, whether you find it in art or religion or any other domain in which people have taken the liminal seriously, generation after generation. Because the role of ritual is not just to get you into the liminal, but to give you a chance of finding your way back.

Among the messages of the liminal is that endings are also beginnings, that sometimes we need to ‘give up’, that despair is not a thing to be avoided at all costs – nor a thing to be mistaken for an end state.

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Somewhere in the tumbling days that followed the US election, I saw it go by in the stream of social media. ‘It’s basically Breitbart vs Dark Mountain now, isn’t it?’ someone wrote, like we’re the last ones left whose worldviews aren’t in smithereens after the year that just happened. And like a few things in 2016, it had the taste of a bad joke that might have more truth in it than you’d want to be the case.

In the last weeks of the year, as we were putting together this series of reflections, a discussion got started among the Dark Mountain editors about what the role of this project should be, in the years ahead. Bad jokes aside, it’s clear that the work we’ve been doing has taken on a new relevance, and with that comes a sense of responsibility.

A couple of things are clear. The books we publish will always be at the heart of this project – and the work of artists, the makers of culture, will always be our starting point.

Every year, thousands of copies of our books go out to readers around the world. By the standards of an independent literary journal, it’s an achievement, and it’s through the sale of our books that we’re able to pay for some of the work that goes into Dark Mountain. (The rest of the work, as you can imagine, is a labour of love.)

A sobering realisation this autumn, though, was that the audience coming to this website each year is a hundred times the size of the number of people ordering the books. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course – but over the years, we’ve given only a fraction of the attention to this site that goes into each of our print issues.

So we came to the conclusion that it’s time to do something online that comes closer to the richness of the books we publish (and will go on publishing). Exactly what form this takes, we’re still working on – but it’s going to be an online publication, something more and different to a blog – and a site that reflects more of the web of activity of the writers, thinkers, artists, musicians, makers and doers who have taken up the challenges of the Dark Mountain manifesto.

To make this happen, we need your help.

We’re asking for donations to cover the costs of building and launching a new online home for Dark Mountain. You can send a one-off amount, or set up a small monthly subscription – or if you’d like to talk about other forms of support, then you can get in touch. Everything you need to know is here, on our new fundraising campaign page.

How ambitious we can be with the next phase of Dark Mountain depends on the level of support we get, so at this stage we’re not setting a fundraising target or a deadline – but we’ll tell you more as we go along.

Meanwhile, thank you for reading and sharing the work we publish. From the crowdfunding of the manifesto onwards, everything Dark Mountain has done over the years has been made possible by the support of friends, collaborators and readers. We don’t take that for granted – and wherever things go next, however dark it gets, we’re thankful for the journey we’ve been on with you.

Image: Still from Attempt at the ocean / not-to-touch-the-ground Fårö, Sweden by Patrik Qvist, featured in Dark Mountain: Issue 7. Patrik was one of fourteen artists, writers, directors and performers based in Sweden who took part in the Dark Mountain Workshop with Riksteatern, led by Dougald Hine, between October 2015 and May 2016.

Please check out our fundraising page and consider making a donation to support the next phase of the work of Dark Mountain.

2016: Toward the Deep Future

One of the oddest features of contemporary industrial society, it seems to me, is the profound ambivalence it displays toward the future. It’s hard to think of any society in human history that has made so much noise about the future, or used images and ideas of the future so relentlessly as rhetorical ammunition in its political and cultural controversies. In all the tumult and shouting about alternative tomorrows, though, one rarely encounters the sense that the future might be different from the present in any way that genuinely matters

That wasn’t always the case. As recently as the 1970s, imaginary tomorrows that went zooming off at right angles to the conventional wisdom were commonplace. In the decades since then, however, a curious sort of conformism has squeezed the collective imagination of our era into an increasingly narrow rut. Take any randomly chosen portrayal of the future nowadays, and rather more often than not, you’ll find two and only two differences from the present: on the one hand, technology extends its current trajectory straight out to the horizon; on the other, the attitudes and customs of this or that affluent group in today’s industrial societies become more generally accepted. Nothing else is allowed to change.

So narrow a view of the future isn’t limited to the vague mumblings of politicians and pundits, or for that matter such bargain-basement pop culture phenomena as the Star Trek franchise. It’s pervasive even in science fiction, which used to be far more open to alternative tomorrows. I’m thinking here, among other examples, of Neal Stephenson’s otherwise intriguing 2008 novel Anathem, which is set on an alternate Earth some 3,400 years after the equivalent of our time.

Mind you, Stephenson is better at pushing the boundaries than most. His alternate world features an intriguing scientific monasticism that invites comparison with the scholarly monasticism of Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, to the extent that I’ve wondered more than once if some of Stephenson’s inspiration might have come from the subtle ambiguities of Hesse’s novel. Yet the inhabitants of his alternate world, living in the equivalent of 5400AD, wear t-shirts, eat energy bars, and text each other and access the internet on what, despite a change in name, are pretty obviously iPhones. Worse, they talk, think, and act in ways indistinguishable from their t-shirt-wearing, energy-bar-ingesting, iPhone-using equivalents in 2016.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Stephenson could have taken his entire story — plot, characters, dialogue, and all — and set it in an upscale San Francisco neighbourhood of today without the least sense of incongruity. It’s very much as though an ancient Roman science-fiction writer penned an adventure set in the twentieth century, in which everyone still wore togas, ate stuffed dormice, wrote on wax tablets, and had the same interests, attitudes, and habits as intellectuals at the court of Augustus Caesar — as though the future had no other options to draw on.

At that, as already noted, Stephenson’s vision goes further than most. A great deal of science fiction these days is still stuck rehashing the shopworn trope of Man’s Future in Space, ringing changes on a handful of imagined futures that were already old hat in the 1960s. Year after year, the technologies become more elaborate but the underlying ideas become more tightly focused on the concerns of the present moment, and tales that span entire universes fail to conjure up the rush of strangeness and wonder that authors once achieved with a trip to the Moon.

I submit that something has gone far astray here. It’s the same thing that leads Pentagon officials to publish projections of the military environment in 2035 based on the assumption that the only significant change between then and now will be the arrival of new technologies, and convinces affluent liberals that their carbon-intensive lifestyles don’t conflict with their environmentalist beliefs in any way that really matters. A great many people these days have lost track of the fact that the future really can be different from the present.


There’s a tremendous irony here, in that modern industrial society belongs to the minority of societies that pays attention to the reality of historical change. Far more common among human cultures is the belief that the true order of things was set forth once and for all at some point in the past, and any departure from that true order is an error waiting for correction. That’s very widespread among those peoples sufficiently comfortable with their environments that they don’t need to insert complex technological suites between themselves and the natural world — yes, that’s pronounced ‘primitive societies’ in our tribal jargon — but it’s not only found there; ancient Egypt and classical Japan, among many other complex literate civilisations, revered narratives that explained how the principles of right living were set out at the beginning of time.

Among the minority of human cultures that have seen history as a dynamic process, rather than a continual reaching back to the First Time, far and away the most common vision of time is cyclic rather than linear. From within the traditional Hindu or the classic Maya worldview, for instance. the future is the past; all things have happened before and will happen again, and while historical change takes place, there’s nothing genuinely new about it. That’s one of many reasons why the people who pinned their hopes of Utopia, apocalypse, or some fusion of the two on a nonexistent Mayan prophecy four years ago were barking up the wrong stump. The classic Mayan vision of time has no room for such things, since in that worldview, the rollover of the thirteenth baktun has happened and will happen countless times in the spinning circles of eternity.

It’s interesting to speculate on why it was that tribal peoples in one corner of the long peninsula stuck on the western end of Asia — yes, that would be Europe — broke away from those standard options and began to think about time as a straight line. The curious thing is that while the straight lines of history that dominate the imagination of our time lead ever upwards, the oldest-known version pointed the other way. We know that because a bitter old man named Hesiod, who lived on a hardscrabble farm in Boeotia during the last century or so of the Greek dark ages, put the tale into one of the oldest surviving works of Greek literature.

There had been a golden age in the past, Hesiod tells us, when people lived without labour and suffering, and the gods walked among men. There had been a silver age of harmless folly after that, and then a bronze age of war. Then had come the time of heroes, and finally the iron age of suffering and destitution, in which Hesiod believed he lived — and not without good reason. Eventually infants would be born with their hair already grey, and then inscrutable Zeus would send the last wretched remnants of humanity tumbling down into darkness and silence forever.

Christianity, Islam, and a baker’s dozen or so of their mostly forgotten rivals rebelled against that vision without actually changing it. Their solution to the terrible vision of a world in permanent decline involved the prophecy of a deus ex machina at the end of the tale, to lift up the faithful remnant to inscrutable heights. It was only after the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, and the first stirrings of the industrial revolution of the eighteenth, to give rise to the modern vision of history as a process of perpetual improvement, a vast journey up from the darkness and squalor of the prehistoric past to the luminous possibilities of an imagined future.

For a good long time, too, ‘imagined’ was the operative world. Once the idea of progress found its initial foothold among eighteenth-century intellectuals, imagining the future that progress would bring became a growth industry. The resulting images extended from the highly practical to the highly absurd — I’m thinking here especially of Charles Fourier, who predicted (and apparently believed) that when humanity passed beyond Civilisation to the supreme state of Harmony, the oceans would turn to lemonade and wars between communities would be replaced by competitive orgies — but the most popular visions provided anchors for the hopes of millions.

Not so long ago, this was still true. The question I want to raise is why that was replaced with the present habit of thinking of the future as just like the present, only a little more so. I have an answer to propose, too: the reason so few people spend their time imagining a future of perpetual progress is that so few people actually believe in it any more.


Gregory Bateson, one of the twentieth century’s most versatile intellects, pointed out many years ago the role of double-binds in the origins of schizophrenia. The pattern he traced out works like this. Imagine a child growing up in a family in which there’s one set of overt, verbally expressed rules for behaviour, and another, covert set of rules that contradict the first. If the child breaks the overt rules by obeying the covert ones, he gets a negative verbal response, but a covert emotional reward; if the child breaks the covert rules by obeying the overt ones, he gets punished on some other pretext. If the child attempts to bring the contradiction out into the open, finally, he gets a reaction intended to terrify him into never mentioning the matter again.

It’s the last element, Bateson found, that makes the double-bind so lethal. If the child can talk to one other person who understands what’s happening, and can thereby get some confirmation of the fact that there really is something profoundly tangled going on, the double-bind breaks down and the child can shrug and say, ‘I guess mom and dad are just kind of crazy.’ It’s when the child has no such option — when he has to confront an apparently crazy pattern of behaviour without any way of knowing whether the craziness is in his family or in himself — that he’s likely to give up on reality altogether, and take refuge in madness.

Bateson’s theory of the double-bind has been on my mind of late, because much the same pattern has taken shape in modern industrial society in relation to technological progress. The overt, verbally expressed rules concerning progress can be summed up in a straightforward way as ‘whatever’s newer is by definition better.’ Listen to media pundits and the chattering classes generally, and you can count on hearing words like ‘innovative’, ‘advanced’, ‘progressive’, and their countless equivalents constantly being deployed as synonyms for ‘good’.

The problem with this habit is that rather more often than not these days, the innovative, the advanced, the progressive, and so on are no longer good in any sense that matters. Calvin Trillin got a nervous general laugh recently with an essay suggesting that the most frightening word in the English language is ‘upgrade’. Less humorous and more pervasive are the innovative pharmaceuticals and medical treatments that have side effects worse than the conditions they are supposed to treat, the advanced technologies that never quite do what they’re supposed to do, the progressive political and economic policies that routinely hurt far more people than they help. Every time a new round of products hits the shelves labelled ‘new and improved’, the odds go up that if they’re actually new, they won’t have been improved.

It could be that the political shifts of 2016 marked the point where the automatic equation of progress with improvement is starting to fray even in public. Recent discussions of driverless trucks and artificial intelligence in the media have admitted up front that these technologies, once they reach the market, will cause tens of millions of people to lose their jobs — this at a time when a soaring number of people across the industrial world have already been pushed out of the workforce with next to no provision for their survival, and the reaction has sparked a populist backlash that already has political establishments running for cover. The Brexit vote, the election of Donald Trump, and the Italian referendum are straws in the wind; if the mindless pursuit of progress continues on its present track, as I expect, that wind will likely become a hurricane.

The core of the crisis of our time is that technological progress, which was once industrial society’s principal source of solutions, has become its principal source of problems. It’s not at all hard to see why this should be so. The law of diminishing returns applies just as forcefully to technological innovation as it does to so many other things; as time goes on, on average, each new generation of technology requires more resources, produces more waste, and yields fewer benefits than the ones that came before it. Keep going, and you inevitably get to the point at which the burdens of each new generation of technology outweigh the benefits. A case could be made that industrial society passed that point some years ago.

The difficulty here is that until recently, you couldn’t mention this in public — not without fielding much the same sort of response a child in a dysfunctional family gets if he tries to bring up the double-bind that’s literally driving him insane. As it becomes increasingly common to challenge the equation of progress with improvement, a good many of us may finally be able to have the conversations that let us know that there really is something profoundly tangled going on, and get to the point of shrugging and saying, ‘I guess our society is kind of crazy.’


Our society prides itself on its sense of deep time — its slowly earned recognition of the sheer shattering immensity of the prehuman past. The pride’s not misplaced, but it’s one-sided. A vast number of people today who think they’re comfortable with the abysses of the past turn pale and talk about something else when it comes time to look out on the abysses of the future.

As I’ve suggested, that’s largely driven by the dawning recognition that the future is not going to be anything like the grand upward journey to the stars we thought we were going to get. The thinner the rhetoric of progress has become, and the more obvious it is that the future ahead of us isn’t going to fulfil the promises loaded upon it, the more two-dimensional the collective image of the future has become. At this point it’s simply a placeholder, a cheery and increasingly flimsy image meant to give people something to look at, so they don’t have to notice the future that’s actually looming up in front of us.

Comforting though that placeholder is, I don’t think it’s wise, or for that matter psychologically healthy, to keep staring at it. To the contrary, it’s past time to take down the painted screen that shows people like us living lives like ours in a future that’s still stocked with its familiar quota of t-shirts, energy bars, iPhones, and contemporary chatter, hang it somewhere else as a memento of a departing age, and lift our eyes toward the deep future.

The truism that we can’t actually know anything about the future, like most thoughtstoppers of the same kind, doesn’t happen to be true. Just as an astronomer can observe a newly discovered exoplanet and, after a few observations, predict where it’s going to be found a day, a week, or a thousand years later, enough is known about the behaviour of civilisations, species, and planets to be able to predict with some certainty the trend of events in the deep future.

Among the things that aren’t subject to doubt are certain impossibilities. We’re not going to colonise deep space or the other worlds in the solar system, for example, because the Earth is the only rocky planet this side of Proxima Centauri with a magnetic field strong enough to ward off the streams of hard radiation pouring off the vast unshielded fusion reactor 93 million miles away from us. Space scientists have known about this for decades, and have been trying with an increasing sense of panic to find some way around it, without result; human beings simply didn’t evolve in a high-radiation environment like space, and it’s not a suitable habitat for us.

The grandiose mythic vision of humanity’s future in space, in other words, is going to have to be folded up and put away in whatever museum awaits our society’s dead dreams. It’s popular these days to insist that human beings can accomplish anything they can imagine, but this is another truism that doesn’t happen to be true; anyone who wants to make that claim, it seems to me, is obliged to present the world with a working perpetual motion machine. Some things just aren’t physically possible; some aren’t practically workable; some aren’t economically viable — and those are constraints that our species is going to have to learn to live with for the rest of whatever time-span we have ahead of us.

Then there are the constraints that follow from the choices we’ve already made. Our immediate descendants, for example, are going to inherit a planet stripped of nearly all its fossil fuels and most of its nonrenewable resources, and wracked by a wildly unstable climate. Until the coming thermal maximum peaks and levels off, maybe five centuries from now, we can expect wild swings in rainfall and temperature over most of the planet, and sudden upward surges in sea level — when ice caps break up, as glaciologists have learned in recent decades, much of the melting takes place in massive meltwater pulses that can send sea level up five meters or more in a decade or two. It’s going to be a very rough half millennium, and I don’t imagine it will be any consolation to the survivors to reflect on the fact that we did it to ourselves.

On the far side of the era of climatic chaos, to judge by the evidence from previous greenhouse events and global temperature spikes, the climate will stabilise again, following patterns sharply different from the ones that shape it today. Plants will recover fastest, as they always do after extinction crises, sprouting from buried seeds and spreading in the usual ways from sheltered refugia. The generalist animal species that get through the bottleneck of the current extinction crisis — rats, cats, feral pigs, crows, and many others — will begin expanding into new ecological niches, launching a burst of speciation that will populate the biosphere with a new fauna.


And human beings? We’re also a generalist species, and a highly adaptable one. Even before the industrial revolution, humans spread to every continent except Antarctica, adjusting without too much difficulty to environments as varied as the Arctic tundra, the Sahara desert, the great inland steppes and prairies of the Old and New World, and the island chains of the Pacific. That said, we have a bottleneck to get through, too, and the global population at the bottom of the coming decline will thus likely be only a few per cent of current figures.

Beyond that lies territory that’s rarely been explored, even in the pages of science fiction. I’ve suggested elsewhere that modern industrial society will likely turn out to be merely the first, not to mention the most primitive and wasteful, of a kind of human ecology we can call technic societies — that is to say, societies that get a majority of their energy supply from sources other than human and animal muscle. The technic societies of the deep future won’t have fossil fuels to draw on, but they will have renewable energy resources: sun, wind, water, biomass, and perhaps others that we haven’t though of yet. They won’t have the nonrenewable raw materials we waste so freely, except to the extent that they can extract them for a while from our landfills and ruins, but they will have renewable materials in abundance. The technologies they create using these resources will not be like ours, and will very likely be put to uses we can’t even imagine today.

The technic societies of the future will likely be more geographically restricted than today’s industrial society. Even today there are regions of the planet that are arguably better suited for hunting and gathering, for nomadic herding, and for village agriculture than they are for the kinds of settlement and economy that we’ve imposed on them. In the deep future, that’s likely to be even more true — as true, for example, as it was back at the beginning of the eighteenth century, when fossil fuels still provided a negligible share of the world’s energy. In human terms, the Earth will be a bigger planet than it is today, and far bigger and more diverse than the galactic monocultures so often portrayed by today’s science fiction authors.

The technic societies of the deep future, furthermore, will be no more eternal than our society is turning out to be. Some of them, for that matter, may manage to mess up the planetary biosphere the way we’ve done, and pay something like the same dire cost, though I suspect that our fate will be discussed in hushed tones for centuries to come, and that this may provide a certain degree of immunisation against a repeat. Other societies will rise and fall according to the normal life cycle of civilisations, and to judge by the evidence of history, each of those future societies will be as different from one another as they are from us, exploring realms of human possibility that, again, we can’t even imagine today.

Though we’re not going to the stars, in other words, our species will nonetheless be journeying to worlds stranger than any of our dreams. Instead of travelling through space, humanity has launched itself on a journey through time at the dizzying speed of sixty seconds every minute, and the destinations ahead will more than likely be entirely free of t-shirts, energy bars, iPhones, or the increasingly dreary and dysfunctional conventional wisdom of our age. To me, at least, that’s an enticing prospect; while none of us can expect to see the worlds of deep time that await our species, we are at least free to dream — and perhaps even to take steps to see that as many of the useful legacies of our time make it through the impending crises of our age to the waiting hands of the deep future.


2016: The Year Magic Broke into Politics


We are used to being unwelcome, hunted, blamed, raped, tortured, dispossessed, disappeared. Now we are an irrelevance, a harmless eccentricity, a fairy ball sporting stick on ears dressing up box deviance, a social joke. Yet as witchcraft is filled with the spirit of the age we will become dangerous again, because witchcraft will have rooted meaning.

— Peter Grey, Apocalyptic Witchcraft

The mythopoesis of a pre-Romantic Scots witch story is straightforward: a witch or sorcerer has foresworn the church and enjoys great power in the world. Her land is green. Her enemies fear her. She should be happy, but in fact she is beholden to the devil to torment her neighbours so that they, too, will foreswear the church. The hero, brought to agony by the loss of family, land, or freedom, is tempted in a moment of wild rage to call on the devil, but does not. This forebearance kills the witch malefactor, though since this is Scotland nothing improves the lot of the broken hero, whose only consolation is the firm possession of his or her soul. The Romantics prettied it up with ancient ruins and mysterious rituals, but the underlying narrative remains ugly and revolting. Magic, in these tales, is a contagious evil narrowly avoided at the final minute.

But then, history is written by the victors.

In 1890 Edinburgh-born folklorist David MacRitchie noticed something odd – where Britain was colonising and exterminating in Africa, the remaining indigenous population, though driven to hide in marginal lands and raid settlements, acquired a magical aura in the imaginations of the settlers. The Khoikhoi, the San, people who had previously been formidable opponents in colonial wars began cropping up in settler stories as magical helpers, genii locii, carriers of obscure but valuable knowledge. From this he made an interesting intuitive leap to his own magical imagination: in a series of books he speculated that legends of the faeries in Scotland were similarly the echoes of an invasion and genocide, committed by the Gauls, or the Dalriata, or someone else, against an earlier indigenous populations of Great Britain. This he called the ‘Euhemeric Theory of Fairies‘ after a Greek philosopher who proposed that the gods were in fact long-dead kings to whom magical powers had been attributed.

MacRitchie identified several interesting parallels: the fairies lived under hills; the pre-Brythonic inhabitants of Britain lived in round sod houses. The fairies were afraid of iron; ironworking was brought to England as late as the 6th century BCE, probably by the conquering Celts. The faeries lived on mountains and in bogs; agriculture and agrarian colonists spread most rapidly over plains and river valleys. He even makes a claim that the diminutive ‘fairy herds’ were reindeer – far smaller than cattle or horses, domesticated in Scandinavia and Siberia for millennia, extinct in Britain since 6300BCE. The attribution of magic and the need to leave certain tokens for the fairies mirrors what he observed in South Africa, too.

Being a Victorian, he went on to propose that ‘Lapps’ had cross-bred with ‘Pygmies’ or the Ainu, and that’s why the fairies were so short. This part of his thesis is so ridiculous that it pretty much sunk the Euhemeric idea for good, but let’s pretend that the connection between magic and the knife-edge of annihilation can be extracted, like a bauble, from the matrix of silly racialism. In fact, lets pretend, for a moment, that magic and cultures in crisis are, in fact, natural companions. Let us consider that 2016 was the year that magic returned to politics.


Ha’ănake’i, ha’ănake’i,
He’sûna’nin hä’ni na’ha’waŭ’,
He’sûna’nin hä’ni na’ha’waŭ’.

The rock, the rock,
I am standing upon it,
I am standing upon it,
By its means I saw our father,
By its means I saw our father,

Arapaho Ghost Dance song, collected in James Mooney’s ‘The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890’

As I write this, several hundred native people and supporters are huddled around whatever improvised heat they can manage, trying to push away cold, fear, and the threats of the Army Corps of Engineers to remove them, again, from treaty lands in North Dakota. Its three hundred miles and 126 years from the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, but really, its not that far at all. Sometimes called ‘the last battle of the Indian wars’ Wounded Knee wasn’t really a battle. On the one side 500 soldiers from the 7th Cavalry, fourteen years past their loss at Little Bighorn, mounted on horseback and armed with rifles and Hotchkiss guns. On the other side, about 400 Indians, of various nations, some armed, some not. The final casualties were 25 cavalrymen, and all but 51 of the Indians; roughly half of the Indian casualties were women and children. If you notice, I’m being ambiguous about numbers, and that’s because nobody at the time bothered to count the Indian dead.

The activity for which the Indians were killed was known as ‘Ghost Dancing’. If like me you learned your history in the US school system, you probably learned that a ‘medicine man’ named Wovoka made shirts that he said would repel bullets but they didn’t; on to the next chapter. In fact, the Ghost Dance was a long lived and well-documented religious movement founded by a Paiute ranch hand who had an ecstatic vision in which he saw all the Indian nations dancing together to bring about a resurrection of the pre-colonial world. The Ghost Dance spread like a revival movement, with different nations holding great, days-long dances across the American West, and singing sad and hopeful songs about the coming age. Many of the lyrics were collected at the time, in different languages, and they range from cheerfully nostalgic recollections of playing shinny-stick (a lacrosse-like game) and eating pemmican, to spooky visions of dead relatives and lost children beckoning the dancers on into a new world.

Ghost Dancing, in short, was a millenarian movement. In fact, Ghost Dancing was such a prototypical millenarian movement that it’s not uncommon to hear any movement in which large groups ritually assemble and dance or sing towards the end of bringing about a sudden and magical new world described as ‘ghost dancing’. The scholarship of millenarianism is extensive and I won’t pretend an exhaustive summary here, but some definition seems necessary. Occasionally – and this seems to be a cross-cultural phenomenon par excellence – a charismatic spirit seizes people in an age of instability and anxiety and grants them visions of a movement capable of overtaking history. The spirits promise that ritual activity, almost always involving rhythmic dancing and singing, often including self-deprivation, trance states and invulnerability, will bring about a great change and free them from their alienated tribulation. In the words of historian Mark Lilla ‘Since the continuity of time has already been broken, they begin to dream of making a second break and escaping from the present.’

The term ‘millenarian’ is often misunderstood to mean ‘relating to the year 1000, or 2000’. In fact, it derives from the Christian belief in The Millennium, the thousand-year rule of Jesus that will allegedly come about at some time in the near future. Similar golden eras have been invoked by other millenarians – Wovoka said that Europeans would disappear; the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist said that, well, that Europeans would disappear; the ‘Yellow Turbans‘ who flit by in the first chapter of the Sanguozhi believed that the Han would leave them alone; the Cathars believed that through ‘Perfection’ they would destroy the rule of the demiurge; the Münsterites saw their city on the verge of becoming the New Jerusalem in New Zion; the True Levellers anticipated an England free of the ‘Norman Yoke’, etc. etc. etc. It is this belief – that of a coming rupture, achievable through belief and motion – that defines millenarianism.

Are millenarian movements magical? More properly, does the dominant culture surrounding a millenarian movement attribute to practitioners magical powers? I began this essay with witchcraft, and perhaps no history quite epitomises this ambiguity better: were the witches, as Jules Michelet suggests, a millenarian peasant uprising? Or, as Anne Barstow and Silvia Federici (separately) argue, were they victims of a wave of consolidation by the powerful, embodied as a moral panic? Norman Cohn, a highly regarded historian of millenarian movements, has argued that those persecuted as witches, whoever they were, were ensnared in a persistent European fantasy that small, secret organisations rule via occult powers and disgusting rituals, and must be stopped with force majeure.

Certainly, a large number of millenarianisms have ended, like the Ghost Dancers, in rivers of blood, victims of a response that seems in retrospect entirely out of scale to the actual danger the movements posed. Often millenarians, dwelling as they do in the penumbra of no-time, cast off the rules of the world they are leaving in a mass act of iconoclasm and break things – churches, laws, marriages – but rarely do they seem capable of forming any real danger to the status quo. Instead, the status quo response is justified by the supernatural – the unreal – danger practitioners pose to those who must be protected, including millenarians’ ability to ‘radicalise’ new followers: to convince good people, like Scottish heroes, to sell their souls in a moment of weakness, to drink from the barilotto, to leave the true church, to let their fields lie fallow and follow the saviour to the city.

And after the killing’s done there is, it seems, a strange echo of magical powers that hovers around the ghosts of these massacres. The Cathars and the Templars, for instance, show up in fiction as mystics and illuminati. Magical Indian counselors and guides are a horrible cliche linking Tom Brown Jr. to Barbara Kingsolver to Carlos Castaneda. The Euhemeric theory that colonial victims of a pre-Celtic genocide were resurrected as magical fairies and giants is not without plausibility. Certainly MacRitchie’s Khoikhoi were only seen as magical after they had been slaughtered to the point of near-irrelevance.


‘Journeymen and unskilled workers, peasants without land or with too little land to support them, beggars and vagabonds, the unemployed and those threatened with unemployment, the many who for one reason or another could find no assured and recognised place- such people, living in a state of chronic frustration and anxiety, formed the most impulsive and unstable elements in medieval society. Any disturbing, frightening or exciting event- any kind of revolt or revolution, a summons to a crusade, an interregnum, a plague or a famine, anything in fact which disrupted the normal routine of social life- acted on these people with peculiar sharpness and called forth reactions of peculiar violence. And the way in which they attempted to deal with their common plight was to form a salvationist group under the leadership of some man whom they regarded as extraordinarily holy.’

Norman Cohn, In Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Messianism in Medieval and Reformation Europe and its Bearing on Modern Totalitarian Movements

So let’s get down to business: is the rise of Donald Trump a millenarian movement? If so, what the hell does that mean? The similarities are striking: the continuing rallies, the chanting, the iconoclasm and the coming golden age are textbook. So too is the moral panic that has animated his detractors. There are already oddly explicit references to magic or destiny in the emergent nebula of cultural productions that surround the campaign proper. Australian magic writer Gordon White has described ‘Make America Great Again’ as a spell or incantation. Alt-right writer Greg Johnson included ‘neo-paganism‘ on his list of founding principles, alongside ‘race realism’ and ‘anti-feminism’. And why is Richard Spencer writing about paganism at all?

Certainly an atmosphere of great rupture roils and burns above the heartland of America right now, and many of the manifestations seem folkloric, if not outright magical. Lets start with those scary clowns: suddenly over a few months in the fall of 2016, people all across the world were seeing clowns in the woods, clowns near schools, clowns running through the centre of cities threatening… something. Clowns with knives. Clowns with machetes. Clowns with axes. Clowns beating hikers with whisky bottles. A few people were arrested wearing clown masks, but a lot of clown sightings were, as they say, unsubstantiated. Even those who were actually arrested demand further explanation – there are plenty of items one can wear as a disguise when robbing a taco bell, why was it suddenly clown season? A reddit user who goes by the pseudonym -triggerexpert- pointed out a number of resonances to earlier trickster legends: the creepy clowns were ‘magical people that live in the forest and frighten our children,’ either hallucinations springing from a minds that need to witness a true monster – albeit in this case an attenuated, rationalist, scary-person-in-a-costume monster – or a strange spirit that ‘possesses’ people and ‘drives [them] to buy a clown suit and lurk in the forest.’

You might have seen the curious intrusion into the presidential campaign of a long-standing internet cartoon meme called Pepe the Frog. This essay by the possibly-pseudonymous A.T.L. Carver explains that Pepe the Frog isn’t a cartoon character at all, but rather an avatar of Kekuit, a frog-headed Egyptian chaos-god accidentally summoned by a Korean onomatopoeia and manifested primarily on 4Chan. That would be a weird enough claim for a single essay (or, a series of three essays) but apparently this has been an understanding among these people since long before the election. In other words, whatever you may think Pepe the Frog is or represents, or whatever Matt Furie thinks Pepe the Frog is or represents, this is what the people who made Pepe a thing believe. I simply can’t do justice to the phenomenon here, you’re going to have to go read it yourself. Well, read the first link in this paragraph. I wouldn’t recommend anyone go read 4Chan.

But lets get back to the Trump campaign. Wrapped up in the question of whether Trumpism is millenarian is the obvious corollary – is the despair of rural America enough to create a millenarian movement? Certainly compared to a medieval peasant, or a nineteenth century Indian, even the unnecessariat are doing okay. But here’s the estimable Chris Hedges on his Trump-loving Maine relatives:

They live in towns and villages that have been ravaged by deindustrialization. The bank in Mechanic Falls, where my grandparents lived, is boarded up, along with nearly every downtown store. The paper mill closed decades ago. There is a strip club in the center of the town. The jobs, at least the good ones, are gone. Many of my relatives and their neighbors work up to 70 hours a week at three minimum-wage jobs, without benefits, to make perhaps $35,000 a year. Or they have no jobs. They cannot afford adequate health coverage under the scam of Obamacare. Alcoholism is rampant in the region. Heroin addiction is an epidemic. Labs producing the street drug methamphetamine make up a cottage industry. Suicide is common. Domestic abuse and sexual assault destroy families. Despair and rage among the population have fueled an inchoate racism, homophobia and Islamophobia and feed the latent and ever present poison of white supremacy.

Significantly, the remainder of that essay explores the search for ‘magical thinking’ Hedges sees in his family: ‘Those who are cast aside as human refuse often have a psychological need for illusions and scapegoats. They desperately seek the promise of divine intervention. They unplug from a reality that is too hard to bear.’

Hedges blames the Christian right, but not as an unsympathetic outsider. For the past few years, Hedges, Truthdig columnist and author of War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning has also been serving as a Presbyterian minister – he has an M.Div from Harvard – in New Jersey. Something needs to give us meaning after all. Why shouldn’t the incantation of an America Great Again, ushered in by memes, smash the idols of an America Too Hard To Bear? Why should the ritual mechanisms that consolidate collective action – dancing, singing, rhythm, unison, trance and vision – not stand in for divine intervention?

If Trumpism is apocalyptic, we should be careful. The charming idea that Trump’s more outlandish proclamations have been cynical maneuvers to profit from the rage and unplugging of his movement can be rejected out of hand. Whatever else they may be, the charismatic leaders of millenarian movements are always the truest of true believers; typically they perish in the final bloodbath seemingly amazed that their vision has not, even in its ultimate crisis, manifested in their favor. Similarly, it is not true that millenarian movements always fail without collateral damage. Christianity began as a Jewish heresy after all, a movement among the colonised subjects of Roman Judaea that promised a new age with the return of the dead prophet. It didn’t go well for Judea’s – the Zealots were crushed and the Temple destroyed – but Christianity went on to be a world-altering force.

I have tried, desperately, to avoid breaking Godwin’s law throughout this essay and not mention the obvious millenarian overtones of the Nazis, but the chanting and marching, the thousand-year golden era, the invocations of blood and soil make that impossible. The world indeed does sometimes break to the will of the perfected, even if, like the Batenburgers or the Flagellant Brethren of the Cross, the perfected sometimes paint themselves with the entrails of the damned. Magic and the magical have once again become forces in our era. It is tempting to treat them ironically – Ivan Stang is surely spinning in his grave, except that he’s not dead – but we play with them lightly, or dismiss them entirely, at our peril.


There are going to be people for whom this entire direction of inquiry is anathema. There are those who believe in a political version of Homo economics – that humans are rational actors, and the best possible policies, developed by the smartest people and explained in the clearest terms, will win support from the masses who will consider both their own best interests and the degree to which the expected outcomes are congruent with shared values. These people are feeling utterly shocked and confused right now. There are those who believe that any reference to magic or social egregores is anti-scientific and hence, prima facie wrong. These people are feeling disgusted right now. There are those who feel that they must limit themselves to only those predictions that lead from our present predicament to a glorious, peaceful and enlightened future, and if they ever change the channel the ghosts will get them. These people are terrified.

But to all these people I say – you are living in a world that bends. To pass through the storm, it will be necessary to discuss matters plainly with the wind. If you cannot imagine such a conversation perhaps you would do well to learn from those who already float like leaves…

Notes: Since I wrote the first draft of this, the Army Corps of Engineers has agreed to delay permitting one mile of the Dakota Access Pipeline until an environmental impact statement is completed. I would like to thank Ran Prieur and my professor friend for reading (and not necessarily agreeing with) this essay, and to acknowledge my conversations about millenarian movements with Heathen Chinese. Now, for the list of topics that didn’t make it into this essay:

  • While we’re talking about Stanley Cohen, how about Obama as a folk devil?
  • Sorcery of the Spectacle: a subreddit taking capitalist glamour back to its etymological roots
  • The Mandela Effect– sadly, I think this can be attributed to people confusing Mandela with Steve Biko, whose death in prison was the subject of an Oscar-nominated early-eighties film (about a heroic white guy, natch)
  • The context for the Mark Lilla quote is a description of the millenarianism of the Islamic State, who actually are pretty bad people and the subjects of a full-scale moral panic.
  • It is too simple to say that cultures in crisis breed millenarian movements, which provoke moral panics, which lead to eradication and posthumous allegations of special powers. Many people have been destroyed quietly offstage throughout history after all.

2016: A Sheep’s Vigil

Humans are symbolic creatures. We look for the signs in passing details that make sense of larger patterns – news stories, politics, natural events stitched into the narrative of our lives by small, local things. And always, perhaps, a reading of the portents for a prickling sense of threat, dulled but not dismissed by the comfort of the modern.

The farm I help to work is a good place for such reflections. Just recently I took two pigs to slaughter. People say that pigs are the smartest of farm animals, but there are different kinds of intelligence. Meatheads blind to the deceit of the bucket, they trotted obediently after it into the trailer for their final journey. Sheep rarely make the same mistake, endlessly watchful, and always with an eye on the best escape. Getting them where I want is usually a comedy of errors, full of pratfalls and missteps. But in the end I always succeed.

Not everything succeeds on the farm, though. I stump around it most days, talking to myself like a high street mutterer. ‘The lambs’ll need fresh hay; better check that water pipe; when should I coppice those willows; Christ, that shed’s a mess.’ Work gets done or it doesn’t. Nature brings her own designs, full of gifts and challenges. The seasons swing around and the farm year takes shape out of all those little monologues – the things that did or didn’t work, the produce sold or lost, the home, the family, and the comfort that while time moves on, tide washes clean. It’ll all be here next year, refreshed in spring, ready for another cycle – different from how it was before, and yet comfortably the same.

As I stump around the events of the wider world this year, I’m not so sure I can see the bigger patterns from the work that was done, or feel the comfort of renewal. But here, at any rate, are some things I noticed, and an effort to make sense of them.

From Blairism to Mairism

On 16 June, Thomas Mair murdered MP Jo Cox. When asked his name in court he said ‘My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain’. He subsequently entered no plea and gave no evidence at his trial, instead jotting in a pad the names of well-known people he recognised in court. Sentenced to life imprisonment, he asked to address the court, a request refused by the judge on the grounds that he’d already had opportunities to explain himself.

A week after Cox’s death, the British electorate voted to leave the European Union by a narrow margin. I can’t help thinking of the Mair case as a kind of twisted microcosm of the vote, to which it formed a ghastly prelude – not because I think the Brexit voters were all far-right fanatics, but because the referendum gave us a similar opportunity to exercise our sense of everyman self-importance, but with no chance to explain what we’d meant when the vote was done and dusted.

Still, there were plenty of interpretations. On the left, an outpouring of anguish that Brexit represented a seismic shift to the political right, and on the right a gleeful appropriation along the same lines. But if it was a turn to the right, what kind of right? Many of the Conservative politicians at the forefront of the Leave campaign were neoliberal free marketeers feeling shackled by EU membership. They sought a ‘freedom for Britain’ indeed, to double down on its status as a trading nation. Much of the noise in the Leave camp, however, was anti-neoliberal – for local jobs, against immigration and austerity. With the gigantic target of Conservative Party disarray in its sights, the Labour Party chose to shoot itself in the foot instead, possibly signalling its end as a serious electoral force.

Thus, the Conservative government somehow parlayed the failure of its neoliberal politics into a retrenchment of its power. The various pretenders who had gathered around the corpse of the exiting prime minister fell away, leaving Theresa May as the only candidate with the apparent gravitas and bipartisan support to occupy the throne. But with her refusal to stake out a negotiating position, compounded by such mystifying pronouncements as the need for a ‘red, white and blue Brexit’, it soon became apparent that her crown was empty and May was the Captain Pouch of the Brexit putsch, with none of the magic powers needed to resolve its contradictions. The political blood-letting on the right is not yet over.

Meanwhile, three senior judges determined that, legally, the Brexit decision had to go before the parliament whose supreme sovereignty the Leave campaign had so vociferously championed. The Daily Mail branded their decision a ‘war on democracy’ waged by judges who were ‘enemies of the people’. Around the same time, a Conservative councillor in Guildford initiated a petition to extend the Treason Felony Act 1848 to include the offence of imagining the UK becoming part of the EU, with a maximum punishment of life imprisonment.

Margaret Thatcher once said that Tony Blair’s Labour government was her greatest success. Blairism, Thatcherism, the ‘third way’ between left and right, the ‘Cool Britannia’ of Blair’s early premiership: it all seemed like a different geological age.

Lily goes to Calais

On 24 October, French police cleared the Calais refugee and migrant camp known as ‘The Jungle’. Not long before, pop singer Lily Allen broke down while interviewing an Afghan resident of the camp for a BBC documentary. ‘I apologise on behalf of my country for what we’ve put you through’, she said. Scanning the almost entirely abusive comments beneath the YouTube clip of Allen’s tearful moment, I was struck by one that expressed the hope Allen would be sexually violated and then have her throat cut, concluding ‘White, liberal elites…so fucking out of touch with reality yet making reality miserable for the rest of us.’

Out of touch liberal elites was indeed a major theme of 2016, a year characterised as a ‘revolt against the elites’ by commentators across the political spectrum, albeit not usually accompanied by dreams of rape and murder. It was a year for self-styled ‘silent majorities’ – though they weren’t always that silent, or indeed in the majority. It was, at any rate, a year in which ‘silent majorities’ called time on political correctness, which had gone even madder than usual. And a year in which it became impossible for many of us to agree on what reality is and who’s in touch with it.

But, for the time being, international agreements still require governments to protect unaccompanied child migrants. So just as the 1990s gave us arguments over bogus asylum-seekers, 2016 gave us arguments over bogus children. Conservative MP David Davies called for dental checks to verify the ages of Calais migrants, saying ‘I would like to see genuine children being brought in, but I think we have got a right to raise this question. If we don’t raise this question we allow ourselves to be carried along on a tide of emotion, Lily Allen-style with tears in our eyes. What we are going to end up doing is very quickly exhausting the well of hospitality that exists in Britain.’

The well was already wholly dry for controversialist Katie Hopkins in her response to Allen’s Calais theatrics: ‘Do not apologise for this country Allen, you cretin. This great country prefers to look after its own’.

Three teenage migrants who’d been in the camp spent a morning working on my farm as part of a local programme. They cleared a neglected, weedy plot with astonishing speed. One of them picked up a handful of soil and squeezed it in his hand.

‘Good humus,’ he said, before nodding at the clover ley with distant recognition, and asking ‘Alfalfa?’

It struck me that most UK teenagers would have little idea of how to identify soil humus content or the members of the family Fabaceae, and that maybe we’d be doing a better job of ‘looking after our own’ if they did. Meanwhile, new statistics showed that more than 19,000 UK children received hospital treatment for self-harm in 2015, a 14% increase from 2012.

Scary Clowns

In October, there was a brief flurry of news stories in the USA and the UK about scary clowns causing trouble on the streets. The panic ended almost as soon as it began, and I wondered where the scary clowns had gone. When Donald Trump was elected US president and started picking his White House team, it all became clear.

That’s the kind of joke that was widely declared off limits in 2016. For Trump opponents, it played into his hands; for his supporters, it confirmed the sneering superiority of the ‘elites’ that needed taking down. Thus, a new political correctness began to take shape – Trump was the champion of the neglected white working class, which was not to be mocked.


I’m not much persuaded that Trump’s victory was delivered by this class that has so suddenly exploded into the consciousness of political commentators, and I’m not at all persuaded that his presidency will deliver it any benefits. But what’s commanded my attention more is the way the populist turn has meshed with the thinking of my own tribe, which for want of lengthier definition I might label the radical greens.

That voters in the world’s largest economy elected a president on a protectionist platform surely signals neoliberalism and its globalising project turning full circle and beginning to ingest itself. Hardly a surprise to many of us: we knew it wasn’t sustainable, we knew its rhetoric of enrichment for all was at best ill-founded if not a downright lie, we knew the ‘Washington consensus’ and the inherited global order would someday start unravelling. Had Britons voted remain and the US elected Clinton, these things would still be true. So there’s been a certain shrugging of the shoulders in the green movement, perhaps expressed most eloquently by Paul Kingsnorth in the first instalment of this series. The old certainties are broken beyond repair – better to embrace the chaos of the moment and try to wrest the new from it. Others have gone further and seen in the new populism an outline of the politics they seek: local jobs and industries, a turn away from dangerous global power politics towards more workaday concerns, a boost to localism as the centralising grip of the traditional political class weakens.

I can see the logic, but don’t feel it in my bones. Instead I mostly feel that prickling sense of threat, partly because it already seems clear from the early moves of the president-elect – the baiting of China and the Arab world, the cosying with Russia, the oligarchic economics – that it’s unlikely his administration will deliver even any backdoor gifts to an agenda of peaceful, sustainable localism. But mostly because the political momentum behind the new populism in truth has very little in common with anything peaceful, local or sustainable. The nineteenth century thinkers who witnessed the birth of modern mass class society had a name for the kind of politics we’ve seen in the UK and the US in 2016: ressentiment – a resentment or hostility about one’s lot projected onto other groups who are inferiorised as scapegoats. There can be leftist forms of ressentiment, directed at such figures as the kulaks or the capitalists, and some of these shadows have stirred in recent Western politics: Corbyn, Sanders, Podemos, Syriza. But the dominant strand has been of the right, targeting immigrants, liberal intelligentsias, and the ‘swamp’ of Washington rather than Wall Street.

One feature of this ressentiment in the west is a sense that neoliberal globalisation has made losers of us. The truth is the exact opposite – though the west’s global power is palpably waning, the majority of its citizens continue to enjoy levels of material prosperity that far exceed those in other countries, and are entirely unsustainable. In Britain, more than half of those who voted Brexit indicated an unwillingness to be worse off as a result. They’re destined to be disappointed, as will those in the US who voted for Trump expecting local jobs, a return to ‘greatness’ or the draining of the swamp. The question that troubles me is what will happen then.

The answer I’d like to give is that there’ll be a moment of high opportunity for the politics of left-wing agrarian populism that I espouse. People will realise that the global capitalist money pump is exhausting, and that they’ll have to look to the resources of their own landscapes and communities to furnish their needs. Those ‘needs’ will suddenly seem more modest, and the satisfaction of them more rewarding than the wage drudgery of recent history. To meet them, there will have to be a socially egalitarian redistribution of land, and it will be land that provides the measure of the human ‘needs’ that can be satisfied. There will be little ressentiment, because everyone will be in the same boat, and there’s no point scapegoating the fields. It will be a struggle. People will need each other’s help. Politicians will genuinely be able to talk about ‘strong communities’.

But such a vision has virtually no traction in western politics today. It’s more likely that the failures of right-wing populism will be blamed on the fact it wasn’t right-wing or populist enough. The flow of immigrants wasn’t sufficiently stemmed; the judges, journalists and intellectuals were enemies within, impeding the government’s progress; the craven bankers, Euro politicians and international business classes proved a tougher nut to crack than we’d thought. So we need a stronger government to push the programme through. Sacrifices will be needed, certain liberties curtailed in pursuit of the wider interest, but this is the will of the real people of the country.

The word for this is fascism. Perhaps it gets bandied around too much by left-wingers like me, a wolf-cry from reading too many below-the-line comments on social media and articles in the Daily Mail. Certainly, the political noise of the moment isn’t fascism, but it may be the phoney war preceding it. Sociologists used to say that fascism was a pathology on the route to modernisation. But we now know that modernisation isn’t a realised state but an unstable process with pathologies of its own, and fascism is a permanent possibility within it. I watch the screws tighten in Putin’s Russia, Erdoğan’s Turkey, Orbán’s Hungary. What do we expect the collapse we’ve so long predicted to look like if not like this? The Turkish journalist Ece Temelkuran writes that where we are now in the UK and the US is where Turkish civil society was 15 years ago: ‘For 15 years we played chess with the pigeon in Turkey, but now we don’t even have the chessboard. Some of you still have time to shape your future. Use it’.

The shrill, pre-emptive tone of failure and ressentiment already hangs around the Brexit camp and the Trump presidency before they’ve even started trying to deliver on their impossible promises. Already, for the Daily Mail, the judiciary and parliament are the ‘enemies of the people’. I read a lot about ‘getting our country back’ or making it ‘great’. I feel the force of those swelling emotional appeals – so much more stirring than appeals to get back to the farm and grow potatoes. And I find no comfort in the fact that, like many others, I’ve long seen it coming. I agree with Paul Kingsnorth: ‘we write new stories because the old ones are half-dead now’. But I fear that our stories will have the weakness of new-borns facing the muscled narratives of these fascist and nationalist zombies. We’d better tell them well.

I’ve seen more clearly in 2016 how currents of radical green thinking can connive or even align with the alarming political drift. I won’t mention names, but here are some ideas I’ve seen passing largely unchallenged this year from influential ‘green’ writers:

Liberalism is a failed and divisive political project.
Class struggle is a luxury of open societies.
Cultural communities are unities inciting emotional allegiance – identities to ‘give your heart to’.
Identities are place-based.
The nation is a cultural community.

In previous times I’d probably have gone along at least with the first of these – so long as it was widened to include not just liberalism but the gamut of modernist political doctrines from conservatism to socialism. What I’d now say is that, for all its faults, liberalism takes political division and its healing more seriously than just about any other doctrine, certainly more so than the easy unities often sought through notions of place, identity, culture, community and nation. I understand why green thinkers might want to re-enchant them, but such ideas are supremely vulnerable to malign political transformation. Let us remember that almost any story can divide as well as unite, sicken as well as heal, and ponder what elements of the ‘open society’ we might rescue from the past for the benefit of the future. Whatever the defects of liberalism, I’ve come to see how much I and many others who dispute its politics rely on a liberal public sphere.

Doubtless, the dispiriting choice of London/Brussels or Trump/Clinton tempts a focus on more important things. But after this year, I see it differently. The further we progress towards fascism or other points on the compass of authoritarian nationalism the less traction we will have to do anything else that matters. I fear that in the past I’ve spent too much time worrying about climate change, energy crisis and the grand ecological realignments facing humanity, too much time embracing the certain end of the existing order in the abstract, and not enough on giving myself to basic decencies that might see us through to somewhere else. Lofty disinterest made sense while our political economy reached the wild heights of its stalling point, but it won’t serve for the fall.

Some new year’s resolutions:

I will give my heart only to people or places I know, or to stories or songs that move me. I won’t give it to abstractions – the people, the nation, our culture, the community, nature, democracy.

I will lower my gaze. Wolfgang Streeck, author of How Will Capitalism End? said in an interview ‘I am thankful for every passing year that is good and peaceful. And I hope for another one. Very short-term, I know, but those are my horizons’. Like him, I will be thankful for the year. I hope.

I will work for renewal. Farmers can just wait for the spring, but you can’t do that in politics. So I will lend my weight to the grand contradiction of liberalism: trying to be decent in response to other people’s views, while fighting the view that some people’s views or lives don’t matter.

I will try to make my farm a better one, embracing the populist doctrine that there are some kinds of work, like farm work, that are real work. I won’t embrace the populist doctrine that there are only some kinds of people who are real people.

I will be watchful, like the sheep. I fear that some of us will soon turn from the shepherds into the shepherded, and that once the clowning is over we’ll have no control over where we’re going. I’m not sure I can avert that fate, but I can at least remain alert for escape routes.