Renewed interest in philosopher fires celebrations of 200 years since his birth on 5 May 1818
A spectre is haunting Europe in 2018 – to borrow from one of his catchier one-liners – the spectre of Karl Marx himself. Two hundred years after the philosopher’s birth, a small industry is gathering pace, from plans for major events in Trier, the city on the Moselle where he was born, to a new tour of the Manchester streets that he and Friedrich Engels walked as they discussed the condition of the city’s emerging working class. The bicentenary on 5 May will be marked with exhibitions, lectures, conferences, histories and novels.
The books are starting to pile up. Last month saw a new edition of Marxism – a Graphic Guide, a collaboration by philosophy lecturer Rupert Woodfin and comic book artist Oscar Zárate, while titles by heavyweight specialists on Marxism are on the way. They include a reprint of literary theorist Terry Eagleton’s bestselling Why Marx Was Right, along with a new edition of The Communist Manifesto – which starts with the “spectre” quotation – including an introduction by the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis.
Marx’s ideas, running through the Russian revolution to the present day, will be the focus of Marx and Marxism, a new book by one of Britain’s foremost historians of socialism, Gregory Claeys. The influence of the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn – as well as factors such as reduced employment prospects and a desire to challenge austerity – are credited by Claeys as helping to engender a renewed interest in Marx, particularly among the young.
“Marx’s prose may seem somewhat obtuse to modern readers,” Claeys said. “But Marx’s central premise – that the most obvious and extreme forms of oppression and exploitation can be removed from everyday life – retains a robustness and daring paralleled by no other thinkers in the modern period.”
Fact is accompanied by fiction. The Murder of Warren Street by Oxford university historian Marc Mulholland, published at the end of May, promises to tell the story of villain Emmanuel Barthélemy (“the man who wanted to kill Marx”).
Marx Returns, due out on 23 February and written by Jason Barker, is billed as combining historical fiction, psychological mystery, philosophy and extracts from Marx’s and Engels’s collected works to reimagine the life and times of Marx.
Among a plethora of gatherings and conferences being organised by the various families of the left, one of the most eagerly awaited is Marx 200, a major conference due to take place at Soas University of London and organised by the Marx Memorial Library.
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell – arguably Britain’s best-known Marxist – will speak on the theme of “Into the 21st century: Marxism as a force for change today” alongside guests from around the world, including Sitaram Yechury, the general secretary of the Communist party of India (Marxist), and Luo Wendong, a professor from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Meirian Jump, archivist at the memorial library, said interest had increased in Marxism in the past couple of years, while numbers attending lectures on Marxism and conducting research in the library’s reading room have risen in recent months.
“In the autumn our venue reached capacity and we had to turn people away from our lectures celebrating 150 years since the publication of Das Kapital,” Jump said. “It was noticeable that a large number of those queuing outside Marx House were young people and students.”
Away from the political calls to arms or Marxist think-ins, exhibitions include the Karl and Eleanor Marx Treasures Gallery, from May to early August at the British Library. The display aims to explore the role that the British Museum reading room, a predecessor institution of the British Library, played in the life and work of Marx and his daughter, a writer and political activist in her own right.
Items on display will include correspondence by Marx, his family and Friedrich Engels, covering both personal and political affairs, as well as rare copies of first editions of Marx’s writings, several of which he donated to the library. Among these is a copy of the first French translation of Das Kapital, believed to feature annotations in Marx’s own hand.
To the likely chagrin of committed Marxists and eurosceptics, the distinctly un-Marxist figure of European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker will open a series of exhibitions in Trier. Visitors will be able to view a new permanent exhibition at the Karl-Marx-Haus Museum, and a bronze figure of Marx donated by China.
Those unable to make the trip might instead consider the Marx 200th birthday walking tour in Manchester, where Engels lived on and off for almost 30 years and was visited by Marx.
“We’ve been doing Marx-themed walks for a while. He and Engels were great drinkers so we did one based on the pubs they used to go to, and there was a great response,” said Ed Glinert of New Manchester Walks.
“You get a real range of people. I took the Chinese consul around one time, for example. We don’t get too many Americans, though.”
As for what Marx would make of it all, Claeys asserted he had “a fine, robust sense of humour” and would certainly have mocked many who have taken up his name over the past 150 years.
“He would, I think, be a ‘deep green’ thinker who would advocate sustainable development, an end to planned obsolescence and production based on the profit rather than global human need,” he said.
At the 1999 Cannes film festival, attendees watched the work of a little-known 28 year old. That film was The Virgin Suicides, written, directed, and produced by Sofia Coppola. The novel by Jeffrey Eugenides about a doomed family of teenage sisters had resonated so much with the young Sofia she felt compelled to step behind the camera and make her own mark on movies.
In this first episode of The Start, Sofia Coppola reveals how personal tragedy – and her own not-too-distant adolescence – fed into the process of telling a story about youth and loss; and, 20 years on, explains the emotional significance the film holds for her today.
I barely read literary fiction any more. When I do it is almost always American writers: Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, Anne Tyler, Donna Tartt. Not only are the aforementioned brilliant writers, they are accomplished storytellers. But here, the form of storytelling and literary novel writing has become largely divorced.
Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill is a magnificent recent exception, and there are of course others. But on the whole, my impression of literary fiction, from Eimear McBride’s much-praised A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing – the last literary novel I read – to the elegant tedium of (insert any number of literary writers here), is that it has lost the plot. Literally.
McBride is a superb writer. But it is fascinating how she reaches out for story and then, just after halfway through, she simply doesn’t know what to do with her driving narrative voice. Perhaps it’s because she wants to subvert story form. Or she may simply not know or care about it.
This would not be uncommon. Worrying about plot and story has long been unfashionable on the literary scene. Style and voice are what gathers plaudits. Martin Amis wrote: “If the prose isn’t there, then you’re reduced to what are merely secondary interests, like story [and] plot.” Edna O’Brien suggested plot was for “silly boys”, which might explain why men in particular are reluctant to buy literary novels.
It might also explain why, when I went to teach postgraduate students at the University of East Anglia – the foremost writing course in the country – about the fundamentals of plot, I was astonished to discover that these superbly talented young writers knew nothing whatsoever about it after years of studying the form.
This has long been the brahmin stance that distinguishes “literature” from mere novels. It consigns storytellers such as Austen, Dickens, Golding and Orwell to mediocrity or redundancy. Literary novelists have been in thrall to modernism since Joyce and Woolf, and latterly postmodernism (a more potentially entertaining template, certainly in the hands of writers such as David Mitchell and Magnus Mills).
But you can be a great writer and a great storyteller as well. Nowadays, long-form television has taken the place of most novels. What distinguishes great TV such as Breaking Bad, The Deuce, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos and many more is the power of the narrative drive. With the great fields of time and scope now opening up on TV, these series have become the new novels. If novelists want to compete they have to up their game.
I have been teaching a course at Guardian Masterclasses with John Yorke, author of a seminal text on story, Into the Woods. We called the classes What Novelists Can Learn From Screenwriters, since it seeks to unpack for novelists the psychological and mythic patterns underlying plot. It is complex – plot is one of the most mysterious and tricky of all literary techniques, which is why so many writers, I suspect, avoid it. But it is essential for any writer who wants anyone to actually read their books, rather than just be admired by a tiny coterie.
The objection is that craft hinders creativity. Jonathan Coe sums up this point of view: “I have an instinctive horror of all systems which try to reduce writing to a series of rules to do with three-act structures and narrative arcs. It’s a sure recipe for formulaic writing.” With respect to Coe – a wonderful writer – I think he’s wrong. I stand with Delacroix: “You have to learn your craft. It won’t stop you being a genius.” The trouble is, novelists have chosen to forget that there is a craft to it.
Screenwriters have three main tools in their box: story, story and story. They know it inside out, because when you have to spend thousands of pounds for each frame to be made, you make damn sure you know what you’re doing. In the past, literary writers have had the luxury of ignoring this discipline. By confirming that this luxury, for most, no longer exists, the Arts Council has done us all a favour.
Art: Stefan Kalmar AN AGE OF CRISIS: WHAT A GREAT OPPORTUNITY…
2018 is all about reclaiming reality, opposing governmental and corporate paradoxes, and dissecting lies, before they become a new truth, the new normal – a new reality.
A moment of crisis is also the moment in which new movements come into focus and new ideas are formed. I’m excited by Forensic Architecture, an interdisciplinary group based at Goldsmiths College in London, which includes artists, journalists, architects, film-makers, lawyers, data analysts and activists.
Forensic Architecture is the name of the research group as well as an investigative practice that crosses fields. It is grounded in the use of architecture as an “optical device”, employing forms of spatial analysis, mapping and reconstruction, overlaid with witness testimony and visual documentation. The group has undertaken a series of investigations into human rights violations and acts of state and corporate violence that have informed military, parliamentary and UN inquiries.
At the same time, Metahaven, a Dutch design studio, deals with information democracy and corporate identity. Its most recent work, The Sprawl, considered the “ways in which fantasy can be designed so as to seem or feel like a truth … how propaganda multiplies within that upload/download architecture; an architecture in which both fact and fiction can exist side by side and even overlap”.
These groups are, in many ways, the contemporary version of the Independent Group, a collection of radical young artists, writers and critics who in the 1950s called the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) their home. And if the groups look similar, then this is because the struggles are too.
Stefan Kalmár, a former Turner prize judge, is the director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts
Politics: Ed Miliband
EMBRACE THE IDEALISM OF THE YOUNG
A major reason to be cheerful in politics in 2018, and for years to come, is young people. Amid the gloom that has hung over politics and society since Brexit and Trump, young people have represented the most noticeable countervailing force. We saw it this year at the general election, and we have seen it in the waves of young people engaged in the anti-Trump movement, the #MeToo campaign and much else.
The significance lies not just in another set of people demanding progressive things, but a set of people with a new set of demands, unencumbered by the past and driven by the circumstances of today. People born after the fall of the Berlin Wall, for many of whom LGBT+ rights, a new wave of feminism, the fight against climate change and an openness to radicalism are part of their generational DNA. When they look at the mess previous generations have made, they are driven to this desire for something better. Our deeply unequal world, including inequality between generations, is turbocharging this movement, which is not scared to demand big change.
Their idealism will often be dismissed as naivety or worse, as every wave is always dismissed, including the 1960s wave of feminism and anti-war sentiment. But older generations should resist the “we know better” impulse, the tendency to being a “centrist dad” as the term goes. Of course, this idealism is not always right, but its spirit is essential, and the demand it embodies for a new, fairer, more equal society should be embraced.
Pessimism and cynicism achieve nothing. By contrast, the energy and vitality of this new generation can help defeat Trump and lead us to build a post-Brexit Britain that doesn’t float off into a low-wage, offshore tax haven.
Just as the causes of earlier generations of young people, once dismissed as outlandish and radical, eventually became mainstream, so too it can happen again. They are the best hope for the transformation of the country we are to the country we can become.
What we are is determined by our genes and by the sequence of the four chemicals – nucleotides – that make up the strands of our DNA. Fifteen years ago scientists sequenced and mapped the DNA in the human genome: they determined the order of the three billion nucleotides that make up our genetic material and they established (roughly) what the different parts of the genome do.
That has been extraordinarily powerful in helping us understand how life works and what it is to be human. But to say we have sequenced “the” human genome is misleading. Our genomes are all different, and if we are to understand susceptibilities to disease, or how people will respond to certain treatments, we need to correlate the health of individual people with their individual DNA sequences.
2018 should see this begin to happen. Thanks to advances in DNA sequencing technologies, and contributions from private sources, government and charities, it is now feasible to read the precise DNA sequence in every volunteer recruited to UK Biobank. Set up 10 years ago, UK Biobank represents a cohort of half a million people between 40 and 69, all of whom contribute information about diet, activity, body measurements and other personal information, as well as samples of blood, urine and saliva. Participants have agreed to have their health monitored, and approved researchers from academia and industry have access to all the anonymised data.
Already UK Biobank has transformed our understanding of health and disease, improving diagnosis and care for those with cancer and rare diseases. But if every participant has their genome sequenced, the prospects for understanding and treating disease, including obesity and mental health disorders, will be extraordinary. We do not know what we will find, but we can be confident it will transform our understanding of what it is to be healthy and what it is to be sick.
Dr Jim Smith is a developmental biologist and the director of science at Wellcome, the science and health foundation
Infrastructure: Sadie Morgan
TIME TO BUILD PRIDE IN OUR ROADS AND RAILWAYS
Our built environment is so integral to our lives that most of us rarely think about it – we take it for granted. We can say the same about the design of our infrastructure and how it affects people and place. It rarely gets the attention it deserves.
As architects and designers our focus has been on buildings at the expense of everything else. We can all think of our favourite building, but can you name a great streetscape, road junction or railway viaduct? That’s because often what defines the infrastructure of our countryside and cities is the miles of security fences, concrete noise barriers and railway stanchions.
Reimagining our built environment is one of the greatest opportunities we have to put a healthier, more compassionate and greener philosophy into place.
From stations to bridges, roads to railways, electricity pylons to flood defences,our infrastructure should engender national pride and a sense of local ownership. Look to the past, and there are plenty of great examples from Brunel’s bridges to Bazalgette’s sewers and pumping stations to power stations reimagined for the 21st century, as in Battersea and Bankside, now Tate Modern.
The UK consistently nurtures some of the best engineering, technical and architectural minds in the world, but we are building it elsewhere.
The good news is that big projects such as HS2 – the largest infrastructure project in the UK for a decade – has committed to high-quality design from the outset.
Britain has proved it is capable of designing and building world-class infrastructure. Add that to a commitment to invest hundreds of billions over the next decade, and this is an exciting prospect. I see 2018 as the year Britain rediscovers its infrastructure mojo.
AS PRICES RISE, RESTAURANTS AND FARMS WILL STRUGGLE
Of all the falsehoods peddled by the pro-Brexit lobby, the most egregious was the notion that it was a decision for our future; the impact of the decision to leave the European Union on our food chain was instant, with the devaluation of sterling leading to an acceleration in food price inflation. By November this year it was running at 4.2%, a third higher than the headline rate.
In 2018 it is only going to get worse: the price of food will continue to rise ahead of general inflation, and as a weakened pound makes exporting ever more attractive, the major retailers will find themselves locked in competition with international markets for produce. Expect to see the big four supermarkets – Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda and Morrisons – softening up their customers for higher prices. Meanwhile, the discounters, especially Aldi and Lidl, which keep prices low by restricting choice but buying in enormous volume, will flourish.
The optimistic view is that this should all be good for food producers in 2018. In reality, Britain’s farmers have rarely benefited from competition among retailers, which have always prioritised shareholders over suppliers. What’s more, farmers have their own price issues. Few food items are the result of a solely domestic supply chain. They depend on inputs – seedlings for fruit growing, for example, or animal feeds – from abroad and the prices of those have also risen. More pressing are the accelerating labour issues. British agriculture depends on migrant labour, and there is increasing evidence of a reluctance to come to work here, both because the wages are worth less when sent home, and a growing perception that Britain is a less welcoming place for workers from abroad.
This is all going to be felt most keenly in the restaurant sector, which is preparing itself for a brutal 2018. Those ingredient price rises, combined with increased business rates, a shortage of vital staff from abroad and a general softening in consumer confidence, are expected to result in many restaurants going bust. For Britain’s food industry the next 12 months are not expected to be kind.
Jay Rayner is Observer restaurant critic
GRAVITATIONAL WAVES WILL CHANGE ASTRONOMY
We all know Einstein was a pretty smart chap, but few things show how ahead of his time he was as the recent detection of gravitational waves, which came out of his theory of general relativity, and is now transforming the way we look into space.
In this theory, Einstein merged three-dimensional space and time into a four-dimensional continuum called spacetime. Within it, mass causes distortions in spacetime and this manifests itself as gravity (you may have seen this shown as a distortion of a rubber sheet). A gravitational wave is formed when two or more super massive objects collide, resulting in ripples in spacetime that, like ripples on a pond, expand outwards into space.
The challenge was that these ripples are minuscule. The measurement needed is the equivalent of detecting a movement of 1mm over the distance between us and Alpha Centauri (our neighbouring star about 25 trillion miles away). It sounds impossible, but the gravitational wave has a very distinct signature that can now be detected.
The joy of this is that it gives us a whole new way of doing astronomy. For thousands of years observations with the eye, telescopes, photographic plates and digital detectors all relied on detecting electromagnetic waves – one of the few things that can travel through the vacuum of space.
Ligo (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) can now make these challenging detections and is now fully operational after a big refurbishment. And with five confirmed gravitational wave detections in the past 18 months, we are gaining momentum – many more exotic collisions should be detected in 2018. A whole new field of astronomy is being established, and it all stems from Einstein’s genius.
Maggie Aderin-Pocock is a space scientist and honorary research associate in University College London’s department of physics and astronomy
Equality: Sophie Walker WOMEN MUST BE AT THE HEART OF A FAIRER FUTURE
Politicians could make 2018 the year that women matter, not by talking about equality but by creating it. Not by telling women to try harder – (“All you need to lift centuries of oppression is to ask better for that pay rise and stop making lifestyle decisions about babies”) – but by understanding the structural inequalities holding women back. By remaking our economy, our society and our institutions.
That would mean understanding that harassment is caused by a power imbalance and is not the result of occasional deviant behaviour; that austerity and welfare cuts damage women because they are designed to; that unaffordable childcare hurts national productivity; that we all get less from gender-blind spending choices.
We could all share care if paternity leave was funded and extended. We would all value it if we saw the benefits of investment in it: care yields twice the economic benefit of investing in construction. The next generation could thrive on relationships based on consent and respect if we taught equality in classrooms. And ending competitive tendering of women’s services could give the specialists who understand how to end violence against women and girls sustainable grant funding to do that work.
We could create a fairer future. If Brexit is the process of remaking our relationship with the world, women must be at the negotiating table. If Brexit is the result of our qualms about immigration, we must build a new system that gives women equal chances to build new lives, with access to public funds. If Brexit is opportunities for all, then women’s jobs and rights must be protected and extended as part of trade talks.
2018 marks the centenary of a small group of white, wealthy women winning the right to vote. It should also mark the year when all women, in all their glorious diversity, could finally vote for their equality.
Sophie Walker is a former journalist and the leader of the Women’s Equality party
Books: Jonny Geller WE’LL WANT ‘REAL’ PEOPLE AND NUANCED STORIES
We have seen a shift in the nonfiction market to “authentic” voices such as memoirs of doctors (Adam Kay’s bestseller, This is Going to Hurt), nurses (Language of Kindness by Christie Watson, to be published in May), shepherds (James Rebanks’s No1 bestseller The Shepherd’s Life) and surgeons (Henry Marsh, Paul Kalanithi). I suspect this trend of “real” people writing about “real” experiences will continue.
But it is fiction that gives voice to our greatest fears and the political upheavals of 2017 have proved a great distraction to the necessary occupation of reading fiction. I can see sweeping love stories that take us away from the Twitter rages of world leaders (Ruth Jones of Gavin and Stacey fame and Jojo Moyes have new books out early in 2018), complex thrillers that take us closer to how the world works (McMafia on BBC1 from 1 January is taken from Misha Glenny’s book on the links between international crime and business), and fantastical stories to transport us (Harvill’s big debut, The Mermaid & Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar).
Added to this, the Weinstein earthquake and its inability to swallow Trump will result in a new narrative conversation. In the 80s and 90s, movies such as Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct and Disclosure emerged from Hollywood’s sense of a perceived threat posed by a new working female population, and I suspect Hollywood will find a way to give voice to the #MeToo movement. I also believe one response to “populism” will be detailed and specific stories of human struggle, filled with nuance, complexity and ambiguity. Most of all, the huge diversity of voices in Britain that have been waiting to be heard will find a place in the mainstream, and as we move away from continental Europe politically and economically, we will find expression in the bigger questions and multifarious voices in this country.
Jonny Geller is a writer, book agent and joint chief executive of Curtis Brown
During a commercial break in the 1984 Super Bowl, Apple broadcast an ad directed by Ridley Scott. Glum, grey workers sat in a vast grey hall listening to Big Brother’s declamations on a huge screen. Then a maverick athlete-cum-Steve-Jobs-lackey hurled a sledgehammer at the screen, shattering it and bathing workers in healing light. “On January 24th,” the voiceover announced, “Apple Computer will introduce the Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like [Orwell’s] Nineteen Eighty-Four.”
The ad’s idea, writes Korean-born German philosopher Byung-Chul Han, was that the Apple Mac would liberate downtrodden masses from the totalitarian surveillance state. And indeed, the subsequent rise of Apple, the internet, Twitter, Facebook, Amazon and Google Glass means that today we live in nothing like the nightmare Orwell imagined. After all, Big Brother needed electroshock, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, drugs and hectoring propaganda broadcasts to keep power, while his Ministry of Plenty ensured that consumer goods were lacking to make sure subjects were in an artificial state of need.
The new surveillance society that has arisen since 1984, argues Han, works differently yet is more elegantly totalitarian and oppressive than anything described by Orwell or Jeremy Bentham. “Confession obtained by force has been replaced by voluntary disclosure,” he writes. “Smartphones have been substituted for torture chambers.” Well, not quite. Torture chambers still exist, it’s just that we in the neoliberal west have outsourced them (thanks, rendition flights) so that that obscenity called polite society can pretend they don’t exist.
Nonetheless, what capitalism realised in the neoliberal era, Han argues, is that it didn’t need to be tough, but seductive. This is what he calls smartpolitics. Instead of saying no, it says yes: instead of denying us with commandments, discipline and shortages, it seems to allow us to buy what we want when we want, become what we want and realise our dream of freedom. “Instead of forbidding and depriving it works through pleasing and fulfilling. Instead of making people compliant, it seeks to make them dependent.”
Your smartphone, for Han, is crucial in this respect, the multifunctional tool of our auto-exploitation. We are all Big Brother now. It is in part Catholicism with better technology, a modern rosary that is handheld confessional and effective surveillance apparatus in one. “Both the rosary and the smartphone serve the purpose of self-monitoring and control,” he explains. “Power operates more effectively when it delegates surveillance to discrete individuals.” And we queue overnight to get the latest model: we desire our own domination. No wonder the motto for Han’s book is US video artist Jenny Holzer’s slogan: “Protect me from what I want.”
Han considers that the old form of oppressive capitalism that found its personification in Big Brother has found its most resonant expression in Bentham’s notion of a panopticon, whereby all inmates of an institution could be observed by a single watchman without the inmates being able to tell whether or not they were being watched. Bentham’s invention in turn catalysed French theorist Michel Foucault’s reflections on the disciplinary, punishing power that arose with industrial capitalism, leading him to coin the term biopolitics. Because the body was the central force in industrial production, Han argues, then a politics of disciplining, punishing and perfecting the body was understandably central to Foucault’s notion of how power worked.
But in the west’s deindustrialised, neoliberal era, such biopolitics is obsolete. Instead, by means of deploying “big data”, neoliberalism has tapped into the psychic realm and exploited it, with the result that, as Han colourfully puts it, “individuals degrade into the genital organs of capital”. Consider that the next time you’re reviewing your Argos purchase, streaming porn or retweeting Paul Mason. Instead of watching over human behaviour, big data’s digital panopticon subjects it to psychopolitical steering.
But what is big data, you might well be asking? “Big data is a vast, commercial enterprise,” explains Han. “Here, personal data are unceasingly monetised and commercialised. Now, people are treated and traded as packages of data for economic use. That is, human beings have become a commodity.” In Hegelian terms we’ve escaped the master-slave dialectic by becoming both master and slave in one.
And, while not Orwellian, we net-worked moderns have our own Newspeak. Freedom, for instance, means coercion. Microsoft’s early ad slogan was “Where do you want to go today?”, evoking a world of boundless possibility. That boundlessness was a lie, Han argues: “Today, unbounded freedom and communication are switching over into total control and surveillance … We had just freed ourselves from the disciplinary panopticon – then threw ourselves into a new and even more efficient panopticon.” And one, it might be added, that needs no watchman, since even the diabolical geniuses of neoliberalism – Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos – don’t have to play Big Brother. They are diabolical precisely because they got us to play that role ourselves.
At least in Nineteen Eighty-Four, nobody felt free. In 2017, for Han, everybody feels free, which is the problem. “Of our own free will, we put any and all conceivable information about ourselves on the internet, without having the slightest idea who knows what, when or in what occasion. This lack of control represents a crisis of freedom to be taken seriously.”
Politics too has been transformed in the era of psychopolitics. We’re incapable of conceiving politics as a communal activity because we have become habituated to being consumers rather than citizens. Politicians treat us as consumers to whom they must deliver; we grumble about politics as consumers do about a disappointing product or service. Shock and buyers’ remorse are the only fitting attitudes towards politics conceived as an extension of shopping.
The world of psychopolitics Han excoriates will be familiar to fans of our leading satirists, Charlie Brooker and Dave Eggers. In the former’s last Black Mirror series and the latter’s novel The Circle, Proudhon’s slogan “property is theft” has been replaced by another: “privacy is theft”.
Anyone who refuses to confess in public is anathematised. You tweet therefore you are; like and you too shall be liked; confess every last boring detail about yourself and you too shall be saved. “Neoliberalism is the capitalism of Like,” says Han.
There’s a little hiatus in this bracing jeremiad that I especially loved. “Did we really want to be free?” asks Han. Perhaps, he muses, true freedom is an intolerable burden and so we invented God in order to be guilty and in debt to something. That’s why, having killed God, we invented capitalism. Like God, only more efficiently, capitalism makes us feel guilty for our failings and, you may well have noticed, encourages us to be deep in immobilising debt.Han, though, weakens his case by exaggerating it. In a chapter on Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, he tackles Milton Friedman’s idea that self-created economic catastrophe offers capitalism opportunity to to shock us into submission. That, to me, sounds pretty much like what has happened since 2008, after which we’ve been working harder for less money, though Han demurs: “Neoliberal politics is SmartPolitics: it seeks to please and fulfil, not repress.” But surely the truth is that torture chambers, the gig economy and the precariat as much as smartpolitics are our political reality: the pleasing and fulfulling of Han’s psychopolitics, paradoxically, exist alongside Klein’s repressive shock doctrine to keep us docile. Such a conjunction seems beyond Han’s philosophy.
No matter. How might we resist psychopolitics? In this respect, Han cuts an intriguing figure. He rarely makes public appearances or gives interviews (and when he does he requires journalists turn off their recorders ), his Facebook page seems to have been set up by Spanish admirers, and only recently did he set up an email address which he scarcely uses. He isn’t ungooglable nor yet off the grid, but rather professor at Berlin’s University of the Arts and has written 16 mostly lovely, slender volumes of elegant cultural critique (I particularly recommend The Burnout Society, The Scent of Time, Saving Beauty and The Expulsion of the Other – all available in English) and is often heralded, along with Markus Gabriel and Richard David Precht, as a wunderkind of a newly resurgent and unprecedentedly readable German philosophy.
For all that, and I mean this as a compliment, Byung-Chul Han is an idiot. He writes: “Thoroughgoing digital networking and communication have massively amplified the compulsion to conform. The attendant violence of consensus is suppressing idiotisms.”
Indeed, the book’s last chapter is called “Idiotism”, and traces philosophy’s rich history of counter-cultural idiocy. Socrates knew only one thing, namely that he knew nothing. Descartes doubted everything in his “I think therefore I am”. Han seeks to reclaim this idiotic tradition. In an age of compulsory self-expression, he cultivates the twin heresies of secrets and silence.
Perhaps similarly, for our own well being, in our age of overspeak and underthink, we should learn the virtue of shutting up.
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