the Ministry of Amnesia

I’ve just read, with great interest, John Lanchester’s latest essay on the global financial situation, and as always, Lanchester is informative, precise, lucid, and compelling — though maybe not wholly compelling. At one point he writes,

Remember that remark made by Robert Lucas, the macroeconomist, that the central problem of depression prevention had been solved? How’s that been working out? How it’s been working out here in the UK is the longest period of declining real incomes in recorded economic history. ‘Recorded economic history’ means as far back as current techniques can reach, which is back to the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Worse than the decades that followed the Napoleonic Wars, worse than the crises that followed them, worse than the financial crises that inspired Marx, worse than the Depression, worse than both world wars. That is a truly stupendous statistic and if you knew nothing about the economy, sociology or politics of a country, and were told that single fact about it – that real incomes had been falling for the longest period ever – you would expect serious convulsions in its national life.

Right — and yet — there aren’t any “serious convulsions” in the UK, or the USA for that matter, are there? Lanchester also writes, “In the US there is enormous anger at oblivious, entitled, seemingly invulnerable financial and technological elites getting ever richer as ordinary living standards stay flat in absolute terms, and in relative terms, dramatically decline.” But is the anger really so enormous? I’d say there’s not nearly as much as there ought to be, or that one would (as Lanchester suggests) expect there to be.

And many of the people who have been hit hardest by an economic system in which, Lanchester rightly says, the rich in pursuing with laser-focus their own further enrichment “have seceded from the rest of humanity,” say almost nothing about that situation but wax eloquent and wroth about the supposedly imminent danger of their being murdered by vast roaming gangs of illegal immigrants. Brexit and Trump are not about fixing economic inequality — which is why Trump’s version of populism has almost nothing to do with the “Share Our Wealth” vision of Huey Long, back in the day, but rather focuses with a passionate intensity on stoking fear of anyone and everything not-American.

So why is that? Why, though certainly there is some anger at the global-capitalist system, is there, relative to reasonable expectations, so little? Why don’t people care that, since the massively reckless incompetencies of 2008, almost nothing has changed? (Lanchester documents the insignificance of the changes very thoroughly.)

The first answer is that almost nobody — almost nobody — remembers what happened in 2008. And why don’t they remember? Because of social media and smartphones.

I cannot, of course, provide documentary proof for that claim. But as the Marxists used to say I believe it is no accident that the shaking of the foundations of the global economy and “the longest period of declining real incomes in recorded economic history” happened just as the iPhone was taking serious hold on the imagination of the developed world, and Facebook and Twitter were becoming key components of everyday life in that world. On your smartphones you can get (a) a stream of prompts for visceral wrath and fear and then (b) games and distractions that accomplish the suddenly-necessary self-soothing. Between the wrath and fear and the subsequent soothing, who can remember what happened last week, much less ten years ago? Silicon Valley serves the global capitalist order as its Ministry of Amnesia. “What is it I was so concerned about?”