It's election time once again, a prospect that usually signals a strange mix of boredom and fear in most of us. We are not listening to the debates and the rhetoric with a keen excitement for the great things that may or may not come with the result, but with a dread for the dire consequences of the wrong outcome. Either that or the whole spectacle just merges into the whole postmodern mush of everyday life, accompanied by the standard refrains of 'they're all the same' or 'it doesn't make any difference'. It certainly seems like the possibilities arising from any such exercise are pitifully slim. But setting aside the deliciously nihilistic structuralism of such sentiments there are other reasons for pausing to reconsider these notions.
This year represents the 70th anniversary of the end of the second World War. In a previous article I discussed the lasting political impact of the conflict (namely the unifying political imperative of anti-fascism) but the war also has a much more complex legacy. It was the historical arena for breathtaking heroism, as well as for moral and political cowardice, indecision and hypocrisy; and yet beyond the stories of daring raids, personality conflicts and fateful decisions is the real meaning of the conflict and the era in which it took place.
The twentieth century was an era where the apparent potential of humanity was limitless – or at least it felt that way to everyone concerned at the time. This was not simply in terms of technological advance, but also political too, it was the century where universal suffrage was finally established and slavery finally abolished, and it was also the epoch when democracy became a desired or accepted norm for most of the planet.
But it was also a time when the limitless potential of humanity was used to pursue a darker agenda. There had been tyranny of all kinds throughout history but the techno-political compound of totalitarianism was very new. No sooner had democracy become a societal norm then certain political forces began to tear up the 'rules' and push over these limits, and such did the era of annexations, revolutions and genocides really begin.
As a result the real legacy of World War 2 was that it saw the three events that would eventually define the limits of human experience and political & technological will: the Holocaust (being the genocidal use of bureaucracy and technology to systematically kill people on an unprecedented scale), Hiroshima (being the inception of a weapon capable of destroying all of mankind) and Stalingrad (being the limit of conventional warfare's feral disregard for military and civilian life). These events may have been reprised in events and atrocities over the course of the past 70 years but they remain the indelible examples where the limits of our collective human endeavours take us to atrocities which nobody can then erase.
Having recognised these limits, political discourse has understandably retreated. The rules of the game have been set; the law applied; grand political projects are shunned; human rights and political pluralism protect individual and collective rights; and although within that rubric there are abuses and there is oppression, there are sources for moderate redress too. Accepting where our collective limits are means we are able to carry on, remember the losses caused by our endeavours, and engage in our remaining options simply and clearly.
The problem is that having reached these limits our mentality remains rooted in the zero-sum mentality of the previous era; people scream for withdrawals, invasions, deportations and detentions, removal of rights and for personal and political cruelty. And some politicians are more inclined to tear up the new rulebook than others, promising what is undeliverable without a rupture and breach of our understanding of what is reasonable; and as ever it is minorities, the vulnerable and the oppressed that suffer. As Einstein observed, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save for our modes of thinking.”
So we can and must stretch our personal horizons and push our own limits, to improve our lives and reach places of greater safety, and we either do so collectively or as individuals; but let us not complain about the lack of that unpredictability borne of the politics which takes place beyond the limits of endurance - because such predictability, and the boredom we perceive it to bring, is really very precious indeed.
And with that I am off to Whitby. Last one to the beach is a steampunk!