Saturday, 16 March 2013

This is what we have lost

Ken Loach's new film, The Spirit of '45, a documentary celebrating the achievements of the Attlee government, has predictably been monstered by the right. According to the Daily Mail, it is a "Marxist fantasy", while on last night's edition of The Review Show, the Tory MP Chris Skidmore called it "propaganda", "a whitewash of the 70s", and "like Triumph of the Will" (he's obviously still smarting over Danny Boyle's Olympic triumph). Skidmore's clincher was to ask why, if 1945 was so wonderful, the country rejected the New Jerusalem and voted Attlee out in 1951. Labour actually won the popular vote in that year (as it had in 1945 and 1950), so if "the country" spoke, it certainly wasn't expressing a preference for Churchill. The reason the Tories won the 1951 election was due to the structural bias in seats (i.e. a Tory vote counted more than a Labour one) and the collapse in the Liberal vote (down from 9.1% in 1950 to 2.5%), most of which went to the Tories (they'll be hoping for the same in 2015).

I've not seen The Spirit of '45 yet, so I can't comment on its merits as a film, but my interest for the moment is in the way it has been received. Leaving aside the frothing of the loons, there are two chief criticisms being made: the lack of a balancing view and its selective use of time. The mainstream view was articulated on The Review Show by Martha Kearney. She introduced the film by noting it contained "no opposing views" and was "an attack on modern conservatism through the prism of the past". She later opined that it was "a party-political broadcast for an outdated ideology", while Maureen Lipman said the film should have included "reasonable opposing voices". This appeal to "balance" is central to the BBC's ideology. Criticising Ken Loach for being polemical is as redundant as criticising Richard Littlejohn for being opinionated. When even the Telegraph can see the fatuity of attacking Loach on these grounds ("like wanting a goat to do a handstand"), you sense that paranoid intolerance may now have completely infected the Beeb.

Kirsty Wark set the tone earlier in the week on Newsnight (12 March) when she kicked off her interview by asking "is this a call to arms or left-wing agitprop". "Neither" replied Loach, with commendable patience. Tristram Hunt was on hand to provide the balance. This largely came down to claiming that the 50s and 60s was a period of "successful capitalism" in contrast to the less successful versions of the 30s and the post-Thatcher era. This is the classic social democrat position: that 1950 (the end of the first Attlee administration) marked the limit of socialism, ushering in the Butskellite consensus of the mixed economy and the welfare state. We didn't need any more fundamental change; we had reached the promised land and simply needed to manage it well thereafter.

What seemed to particularly bother the critics was the way the film jumped from 1945 to 1979, "ignoring" the years in between. The social democrats wanted the successes of the 50s and 60s acknowledged, while the right wanted the horrors of the 70s (i.e. the unions) wheeled out as a justification for Thatcher. This temporal elision is a classic example of montage, the compression of time to juxtapose contrasting or contending images: thus happy working class people in the late 40s give way to Thatcher doing her Saint Francis of Assisi number thirty years on. None of the supposed "critics" bothered to mention this, despite it being a technique famously employed by early Soviet film-makers like Sergei Eisenstein. If you wanted to make the case that the film was propaganda, this would appear to be a gilt-edged opportunity passed up.

Pivotal moments are the result of long-term trends, not sudden shifts. One revisionist approach to British history claims that Labour benefited from the normative experience of war socialism and that but for the conflict they would never have won in 1945, but as the strong vote share (and increased number of votes) in 1950 and 1951 shows, this is not convincing. The historiographical confusion over 1945 is in part the failing of the great man theory of history (i.e. bemusement that voters should reject the war leader Churchill) and the triumph of social trends history. As I understand it, Loach cleaves to the latter by setting the victory in the context of the 30s. In other words, the result of a long-term trend which, as a glance at the popular vote share in general elections would show, started in 1900. It should hardly have been a surprise. By the same token, the seeds of 1979 were planted by 1950. Though the Tory share of the vote followed a gradual decline after 1955 (in fact, a trend decline since 1935), the Labour share saw a steeper decline, accelerating in the 1970s and reaching a nadir in the mid-80s. Thus was Thatcher foretold.

Loach clearly intends to present 1945 and 1979 respectively as the peak and trough for a particular spirit, which is probably more accurately described as "communitarian" rather than "socialist". He doesn't dwell on the intervening years because the aim is (I presume) to show how shockingly different the two points in time were in terms of that spirit. A pedantic criticism would be that the peak was actually 1950 and the trough was nearer 1986, but that would sacrifice the easy recognition of the iconic years. A more profound criticism is that a celebration of the spirit of any age risks encouraging us to daydream that it can be recaptured, which is by definition a forlorn exercise. There is an obvious echo of maudlin Jacobite nostalgia in the title's use of "45".

The aggressive criticism directed at Loach springs from the advocacy of constant change and the disruptive nature of market forces - i.e. the neoliberal consensus. It accepts that there is a "spirit of history", that there is no alternative, and certainly no option to turn back or arrest this unstoppable force. Thus ostensibly conservative critics are reduced to partisan name-calling ("Marxist" and like "Nazi propaganda") because there is no truly conservative critique they can advance. And here you have the real irony. Loach is making an essentially conservative point: this is what we have lost.

Bonnie Greer was the lone voice on The Review Show who correctly saw Loach's film as a work of archaeology, uncovering the original spirit from beneath the layers of subsequent history and contemporary ideology. Trying to get across "what it was like then" and connect with a modern audience looks to be the aim of the film. Again, Loach here stands in a familiar (and sentimental) tradition of British documentary film-making: giving society's unrepresented a voice; allowing them to tell their own story (though inevitably mediated by well-meaning people like Loach himself).

What gave the entire programme a surreal air was that it also included a review of a new TV series, In The Flesh. This concerns zombies whose condition ("Partially Deceased Syndrome") is being managed by drugs as they are gradually reintegrated back into society. Most of the critics confessed that they didn't really get it. They noted various themes such as the challenges of change, alienation, integration, vigilantism and so on, but seemed unable (or unwilling) to discuss the mutation of the zombie horde over the years from a threatening "them" to a metaphorical "us". This was disappointing (though not unexpected) as the zombie trope has a resonant connection with Loach's film.

The original Carribean zombie of voodoo lore combines two forms: the animated corpse, the undead, and the drugged worker, a parody of slavery that also echoes the European idea of the robot (originally a Czech word implying unfree labour). The introduction of the zombie into US culture in the early 30s (the Bela Lugosi film White Zombie) coincides with the Great Depression, with long queues of shuffling unemployed men and itinerant labourers told to move on by small towns. The next major evolution in the trope is arguably Richard Matheson's book I Am Legend (1954), which reflects the Red Scare paranoia of the time (infection, symptoms not always obvious etc), not unlike the parallel alien invasion trope of The Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. Though the infected are notionally vampires, their behaviour is a clear harbinger of the modern zombie apocalypse trope.

The 1968 film Night of the Living Dead gave us zombies whose pathology is unknown. They just are. They could be anyone. It's as if something has erupted in society, as if norms have broken down. This is a metaphor of social change and all the anxieties associated with it, the Hobbesian war of all against all, in which the threats to the heroes are not just hostile zombies but other intolerant and amoral humans. In the 80s, zombies became rabid consumers (Dawn of the Dead famously has them trying to break into a shopping mall), with a hankering for delicacies (human brains). They are biddable, obsessive idiots. They are a projection not of our bestial natures, like Mister Hyde, but of our fear that we are already brain-dead. The modern zombie is often seen as an analogue of the dehumanised worker, while economics now happily provides house-room to such concepts as the "zombie firm".

The evolution of the trope in recent years has seen a reconciliation of the zombie and the human. We don't immediately recognise them as different (often at our peril, usually to humorous effect). The low affect, dishevelment and shambling gait of the stereotypical zombie makes it look like a typical teenager, or at least one on drugs (edgy but fundamentally adorable). The zombie may be more victim than threat, deserving of our sympathy and tolerance, and there is hope we may be able to manage their condition and reintegrate them as useful members of society, while keeping a close eye on them. But given that zombies don't actually exist in the real world, who then are the metaphorical zombies? My own suspicion is that the "socialised zombie" trope reflects our recognition that we are becoming a divided society in which a lumpen class of the low-paid and barely employed youth must be both tolerated and subdued (carrot and stick), lest they run amok. The now iconic pictures of the 2010 riots, with the hooded hordes attacking shops, could have been a zombie film re-enactment. Do we now take our cue from Dawn of the Dead rather than Les Miserables? Storm the mall, rather than build barricades?

Another dimension of this trope relates, I think, to the dilution of class consciousness. The real threat to democracy is not fringe neo-fascists, or populist revulsion with "the caste", but a loss of identity for the very concept of "the people", which has historically been embodied in contending classes and socio-economic groups. This can be seen in the vagueness of such constructions as the "squeezed middle". In a review of the difficulties that the idea of "the people" and its relationship to democracy presents to modern political thinkers, Boyan Znepolski offers this insight into the negative turn this has given rise to: "In contrast to Marx's proletariat, the people is not the carrier of a new project for the world, it is an embodiment of a destructive rage that must punish an unjust social order by destroying it". We, the people, lacking confidence in democracy and the established parties, become zombies. The baccilus we "carry" is "rage", which was precisely the name used for the pathogen in 28 Days Later, the 2002 British zombie film.

Insofar as it is possible to interpret Loach's intentions without having seen the film, I don't think The Spirit of '45 is an expression of rage so much as of hurt, but it does appear to sound a lament for the loss of "the people" as a actor on the political stage. The reality of that time, of multiple desires and self-interests, may make a mockery of the retrospective projection of solidarity, but there is truth in the claim that most people had a common ambition in 1945 and that the Attlee government largely met it. Now, Ken Loach, barricaded in the shopping mall, looks out at a society driven mad by selfishness. But, the funny thing is, a characteristic of the zombie horde is their common purpose. They never attack each other, or other species, they relentlessly come after us remaining humans, almost as if they are desperate that we should join them. Was the spirit of '45 the zombie plague, which we successfully resisted and can now sentimentally patronise, or did we start to become zombies in 1979?

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