Sunday, January 05, 2014

Me, the Machine and the Mainstream

I've had some reflective time this Christmas, which was needed after a year where I was alternately busy and ill. If I've not entirely got my mojo back over the last couple of weeks, I've slowly leveraged myself back into some creative positions, though I sometimes feel I need more winches and pulleys to hold me there than when I was younger. I've talked before about how creativity requires not just physical and intellectual but also emotional energy.

As someone interested in systems, I've never been quite sure of my own part in them; or rather, I've been sure enough that I'm a loose nut, something not on the inventory, that might serve a purpose but doesn't fit seamlessly into whichever machine I'm meant to be part of. You'd think that in a post-industrial economy, the loose nuts would be exactly what was needed as we develop creative malfunctions, that are the equivalent of mutant genes in the biological world. Yet, even creative malfunctionaries - to coin a term - need somewhere in which to function and that's in many ways where the breakdown in the machine has taken place these last few years. Its not merely that the financial system stuttered, collapsed, then needed resuscitating at the expense of everything else; but that the financial system has infected pretty much everything else. The "raw material" of financial products is cash generative businesses; the "collateral" that allows the smoke and mirrors to exist. When you see the number of large speculative office block developments in Manchester - some like Piccadilly Place, still empty after quite a few years - you have to wonder at the dysfunction of the machine. We read about houses in London that are a "reserve currency" for international elite cash buyers. Something here is wrong: an enabling capitalism wouldn't be about developing incoherent housing and businesses purely to feed the financial products it makes the real money on; but the other way round. I watched "Its a Wonderful Life" again at Christmas and there's a run on the bank. "Your money's not here in the bank," says James Stewart, "its in your neighbours houses." Oh, for a modern banker to be as transparent about the magic of their "prosperity".

In the city is where these jobs exist and are centralised. You don't get financial institutions in small market towns (at least not since the rubbing away of the building societies), nor do you get vacant office blocks there.  In this sense the city is the kernel of the machine; the mainframe for the network. Yet I moved to the city many years ago not because I wanted to be part of that machine (though I worked in the financial industries for nearly nine years), but because I wanted the other things that exist in the city: the back streets and the urban murkiness; the poetry and the loud music of the dive bars and alternative shops. Yet, when we talk about "high street renewal" or "regenerating our cities" it seems that those organic alternative spaces are in retreat yet again: you feel that if it wasn't for the recession the machine-greed of finance would have torn down every building and replaced it with some new block, of unlettable flats or shell offices where even the council finds its planning largesse can't squeeze out a business rate of a building without services. Like those "unfinished" homes you used to see in Greece, with the top story "incomplete" as only finished buildings paid taxes; our financial madness squeezes out malcontent buildings just as much as it squeezes out malcontent individuals.

Don't get me wrong: I want the safe streets of European towns; the open plazas where people can sit out and drink and eat as well as just go to work or to shop. Yet I'm suddenly aware that rather than a "long tail" of many interests being satisfied, there's a constant push to only monetise those things that can be mainstreamed. And the mainstream is more deafening than ever. Much as I've benefited from the internet, much as I love the social communication networks it has provided, I can't help but notice that the chit-chat is so often that of the public bar rather than the private room. I begin to envy those who through money, isolated location or temperament are able to construct a world that is their own machine, not just an adjunct to the greater one. As a writer I've always been keen to engage with the contemporary world with all its noise, as I believe the writer's role can be as a bit of a weather vane, taking different readings to predict or even to map the course of the storm. Yet the information is constant, and unrelenting. What lacks is room for contemplation; expertise; specialisation - except where it comes with a commercial value.

How to negotiate a capitalist mainstream that is as intrusive, and increasingly as intolerant as a non-democratic junta state? I can only speak as that creative malfunctionary, aware that the nearer I get to the machine's mechanism and purpose, the less useful I am, the closer to being shaved into a useful square peg that wrong-shape or not gets jammed into a round hole and can't easily extract myself from. We're not so far from Orwell's utilitarian world of "1984" with all our aspects tied to that of the machine: and its clearly going to get worse, before it gets better. Yet it doesn't have to be this way; in many ways, we are the infant stage of the information revolution, and its been co-opted by a powerful, but possibly redundant ideology. For if capitalism can't deliver good pay, good homes, good lives, then it stops being the "best" or "only" economic way. Yet its the very consumptive nature of capitalism - a kind of intensive-farming of human potential so that there's just scorched earth and dustbowls left in its wake - that is what I feel I'm reacting against. I remember the difficulty of getting hold of obscure or alternate records back in the early 80s, having to scour obscure record shops on the edge of cities, or send off mail order for cassette tapes and 7" singles and fanzines. The difficulty of access didn't make you give up and stock up on whatever was in the local Woolworths; rather it created a blindsiding between your world and the mainstream. Like the two cities in Mieville's "The City and The City" we "unsee" a world that has nothing for us. Its why we look on with a wry knowingness about Jimmy Saville,  he seemed an absurdity to us back then, and unsavourily so, yet the "mainstream" was his millieu and his protector, and would look down on punks, post-punks, goths and the like. Yet from our "unseeing" perspective (and this was before Walkmans and the private electronic spaces where you could shut out the world), that world hardly existed. Its partly growing older, (and not having the time or energies to look), partly a valueing of certain civic institutions (the art gallery, "The Guardian", even the BBC), partly the self-ghettoisation that seems to create ever more wilful sub-niches (which my 15 year old self may have been enamoured by for a while, but would still have grown out of), but it seems harder than ever to resist the mainstream discourse.

The past we see frequently through the prism of now. So that we look at old football photographs of 40,000 on the terraces, and wonder what has changed when we've 40,000, paying much more per ticket, in the grounds. Yet, its not just that there's more money now, but that there's more everything. More people for a start; the population of these islands was 50 million in 1950, now its closer to 70 million; longer life of course - as expectancy continues to rise. We should be able to harness this, in ways that are yet unclear: is it the case that as populations grow they also have to homogenise, or is that the apparatus that was built for one type of society begins to stretch and strain - democratically, demographically and economically - as society changes? I have no answers, of course, and don't even want to look too far in that direction - I'm too old to be making manifestos, let alone sticking to them; yet I'm feeling conscious that in order to make my own role in the machine more palatable, then I have to not get absorbed further into that mainstream, but begin to repattern things so I'm no longer as absorbed by it.  

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