Nothing is real. I think a lot of us feel that this is close to the truth right now, waking up each day hoping that it was all a dream. Brexit didn’t happen. Trump didn’t win. Two men of the people didn’t have their picture taken in front of a dictator-esque golden door. But each morning you wake up and realise it is all real, that the world has turned upside down.
The worse thing is these two things haven’t even happened yet. Britain hasn’t lost access to the biggest market in the world, it hasn’t shut its borders to millions of people it used to consider friends, it hasn’t brought back imperial measurements. And Trump hasn’t selected his anti-abortion, gun-toting Supreme Court justice, he hasn’t torn up the Paris climate deal, he hasn’t built a massive wall/fence. But they will happen and I, for one, look forward to measuring everything in hands and yards again, just like the good old days. But why did they happen? These were things that seemed absurd when first suggested, but eventually caught the imagination of millions of people and were victorious. One idea, brilliantly shown by Adam Curtis in his film HyperNormalisation, is that nothing is real.
We live in an incredibly complex, interconnected world. The world finance system is a large web running through banks, institutions, countries, companies, people, all built so that the richest few who can interact with it gain the most out of it. With the rise of neoliberalism, the ethos that if business thrives, a country will thrive took hold and further embedded the importance of finance into our national politics.
Privatisation and tax cuts would be used to show that a country was business friendly, unions would be broken, business friendly policies would be taken up. When this resulted in fewer taxes and greater unemployment, governments would have to borrow to fill the deficit in social spending that this would create. The lenders would be banks, who would place even more business friendly – or growth friendly – conditions on the borrowing countries. This is what is happening in Greece at the moment. This would reduce choice in how a country was run, as the assets that politics haggles over were greatly reduced, set free into the private world. As things worsened for ordinary people, they were being told that their lives and their countries were great. Told they had more freedom than ever in a time that they worked longer for less, when freedom was being taken away by hidden networks of financial power.
Geopolitically, the world was becoming more complex too, with western interests in the Middle East creating a web of truths, half-truths and lies that was impossible to disentangle. Governments were becoming increasingly adept at counter-intelligence. This added to the feeling of helplessness and despair at the complexity of the world, leading people and politicians to retreat into a simplified version of the world of good and evil, right and wrong, left and right. This trajectory carried on until the present and is reflected in the increasing popularity of conspiracy theories in the world.
No one believes anything from governments any more. The trajectory is also most eloquently shown by Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s ‘Grey Cardinal’, who advised Putin to finance both left and right groups within Russia, making people unsure who the real and who the fake opposition was. Such uncertainty helps to paralyse opposition. Thinking they are playing a game with the same rules, their voice becomes neutered, actions ineffective. These tactics have been used by Russian in what is called ‘non-linear warfare’, which always keeps the opposition guessing at what Russia is doing, allowing Russia to take the advantage. It did this in Ukraine and it is doing this in Syria.
This is only a brief overview of the descent into the complexity post-factual politics that we have fallen, however it goes some way to showing why Brexit and Trump were so successful and why their opposition were so ineffective. They understood two things. The first is that people did not believe what they heard any more, so what they said did not matter. The second is that what mattered was that people wanted change, and it was the direction of change that mattered. They wanted to be able to grasp reality again. People knew that their lives had not improved and that politics as it stood offered them no choice. They also knew that they did not fully understand or trust the world they were living in. So when they were given the option to vote for something that would both bring tangible change, and that would put them on the track to a less complex reality, they jumped at the opportunity. Fighting under the impression that truth still mattered, and that all the system needed was a little tweak, unwilling to understand the complexity of the world, and the desire for a reality where actions mean something, the opposition failed.
We crave reality but a simplified version of it. That’s why we watch reality TV, follow stars on Instagram, spend hours on YouTube. We are searching for meaning, for reality, trying to forget the unreality of our existence, forget that whatever we do, nothing seems to change. When we vote, we feel like we are voting for the same thing, we feel like nothing changes, that we are stuck, invisibly bound. Brexit and Trump gave us a way out, a route back to reality and some of us took it. Unfortunately, it’s a simplified version, one that will fall apart and leave us in a broken reality. Do fix it, we must fight for a world where are actions can cause positive change.