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The end of the Eloi

Image: Fabien Cambi

There is a scene in H.G. Well’s book The Time Machine when, far in the future, the time traveller encounters a group of people called the Eloi.  These people appear to live an idyllic lifestyle in which all of their needs are catered for.  But as the traveller moves toward these people, he is shocked and angered when one of the Eloi falls into a river, but whose screams for help are met with indifference by the others (you can view the 1960s film version of the scene here).  Later, the time traveller discovers that things are not as idyllic as he first thought.  The Eloi are terrified of the night, and especially nights when there is no moonlight.  The time traveller soon discovers that there is good reason for their fear.  In the dark underground caverns beneath them, lives another race of humanoids – the Morlocks – who venture above ground in the dead of night to capture and devour their Eloi prey.  Eventually, the time traveller has to explore the Morlocks’ underground caverns.  He discovers that the lifestyle of the Eloi is only made possible by machines operated by Morlock labourers.  In this way, both Eloi and Morlocks are trapped in a dystopian symbiosis.

A self-professed socialist, Wells was clearly projecting trends in Late Victorian Britain (the book was published in 1895) where the lavish lifestyle of a wealthy elite was supported by the machinery and labour of a century of industrialisation; which had provided the basis of an Empire than spanned a quarter of the world.  That said he might equally have drawn on the history of the Capets (or Charles Stuart before them) as an example of where such elitism might one day end up.  The figure of the doomed Marie Antoinette dressing up and playing shepherdess in the grounds of the royal estate while Paris burned in the distance is not so far removed from the Eloi watching with indifference as the Morlock rise up from their caverns to carry them away.  Later, Wells – who travelled to Russia in 1914 – might have noticed the same conditions in a Romanov court where Tsar Nicholas was to casually sign the mobilisation order that turned a local conflict between Austria and Serbia into a global conflict that arguably only ended with the atomic bomb in 1945… not, of course, that the Romanovs survived long enough to witness it.

The – not entirely fictional – premise behind The Time Machine is that elites become divorced from the labourers, machinery and resources that provide them with their cossetted lifestyles.  Moreover, as they become increasingly divorced and dependent, they also become mentally, emotionally and physically enfeebled to the point that they can no longer act; even in their own interest… even when it is a matter of life and death.  The Morlocks, meanwhile are little more than the unthinking and unwashed masses so feared by elites down the ages; a necessary evil that is ideally ignored and hopefully placated.  At least until night falls.

The parallels with contemporary western civilisation are easy enough to spot.  The neoliberal elite that emerged apparently victorious from the Cold War believed themselves to be indestructible.  The high priests of central banking proclaimed themselves to be the “Masters of the Universe” ushering in the unending “Great Moderation” that had finally conquered the cyclical booms and busts that have been integral to the western economic system since the fourteenth century.  Meanwhile, chickenhawk sandpit warriors proclaimed “The End of History” and began the process of sharing out the geopolitical spoils of the “New American Century” among themselves.  All the while, just like the Eloi in Well’s story, they overlooked the massed ranks of modern Morlocks; whose daily labour operating the machinery that kept the whole global edifice running.  Instead, they came to believe that the fiscal alchemy performed by the high priests was all that was required to maintain their rule.

Twilight came in 2008 when the real world intruded into the fantasy.  Events in the real economy, it turned out, do matter.  Spiking oil prices, for example, can be the difference for households and businesses between servicing their debts and defaulting on them.  The endless wars and interventions designed to control the supply and transportation of oil turn out to place a massive additional tax burden on those same households and businesses.  Money printing and low interest rates can paper over the cracks for a while, but the fundamental crisis resulting from the attempt to generate infinite growth on a finite planet remains even as the ability to mitigate it narrows by the day.

The year 2016 will likely go down in history as the point of decline; although the seeds of the unfolding tragedy have been decades in the making.  Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and a wave of populism across Europe may have appeared as a surprise to the affluent classes; but they speak more to an elite that has grown weak and detached than to – for now – a revolutionary movement.  Indeed, the squabbles within the affluent classes over Trump, Brexit and the growing unrest in Europe is serving only to further divorce the elites from any grounding in the real world.

In an article for Vox EU, Andrés Rodríguez-Pose refers to the post-2016 crises as “The revenge of the places that don’t matter:

“Despite massive public expenditure by successive governments to promote development in the north of England, the results had been dismal. The economic gap between a prosperous south of England and a declining north had widened. Development policies were not working, and there was a need to rethink development strategies for those areas of the UK that were lagging or declining.

“The proposed solution was simple. First, focus on the regions of the country that were prosperous and dynamic (London and the southeast). Second, allow ‘people in Liverpool, Sunderland, and so on’ to move to more affluent places to take advantage of the opportunities on offer.”

From the 1980s onward, the dispossessed on both sides of the Atlantic have been told to “get on your bike” and seek work in those regions that still generate value.  And those who could not secure such work were told to educate or train themselves in the necessary subjects and skills.  And so it was that a new state-corporate welfare system was set up to funnel billions of dollars, euros and pounds into the pockets of the owners of the new private training agencies and a new kind of debt-based neoliberal university system.  Funnily enough, however, none of the money seemed to find its way to the people who actually needed it… most of whom stayed poor.  Not least because uprooting one’s life from community and family, particularly if you are not young or have any kind of illness or disability, is much easier said than done:

“What [those urging people to move] did not realise, however, like many academics that preceded and have followed [them], was that telling people that where they lived, and where they felt they belonged, did not matter would create a reaction.

“The worldwide reaction has, however, come from an unexpected source. In recent years, some of the places that ‘don’t matter’ have increasingly used the ballot to rebel against feelings of being left behind, of lacking opportunities or future prospects. Researchers who focus on interpersonal inequality might have predicted this reaction – for which there had been precedents in Thailand and some Latin American countries – would set rich against poor. Instead, lagging or declining regions voted differently to prosperous ones.

“We can see this revenge of the places that don’t matter in the 2016 Brexit vote in the UK, the 2016 election of Donald Trump in the US, the 2016 Austrian presidential election, the 2017 French presidential election, and the 2017 German general elections. It threatens to derail the economic and social stability that has helped create the prosperity of the most dynamic cities and regions.”

Ironically, the current attempt by the elites to find a means of reversing the superficial manifestations of this sea change in the geopolitical/socio-economic landscape (trying to impeach Trump instead of offering a coherent opposition for next year’s election; seeking to force a rerun of the Brexit referendum; using martial law to quell the yellow vest protests across France, etc.) serve only to make matters worse by not addressing underlying causes that have been decades in the making; albeit greatly exacerbated by austerity policies imposed after 2008:

“The revenge of the places that don’t matter – reflected in the rapid rise of populism – represents a serious and real challenge to the current economic and political systems. The stakes are high, but there are few solutions.

“Doing nothing is not an option, as the territorial inequalities at the root of the problem are likely to continue increasing, creating social, political and economic tensions. Internal migration… may only be feasible for those with adequate skills.”

With the UK government in tatters and parliament deadlocked over a Brexit that is due to happen in a couple of weeks’ time, these considerations are beginning to percolate into the mainstream media.  Writing in the Guardian, Aditya Chakrabortty realises that:

“Brexit proved our economy is broken, but our leaders still have no clue how to fix it…

“It ultimately comes down to this: decades of privatisation, hammering unions and chucking billions at the housing market while stripping the welfare state has effectively ended any semblance of a national, redistributive economy in which a child born in Sunderland can expect to have similar life chances to one born in Surrey. Yet politicians remain fixated on mechanisms that no longer work adequately for those who actually depend on the economy. They obsess over GDP growth when the benefits of that are unequally shared between classes and regions. They boast about job creation when wages are still on the floor.

“Most of all, they brag about London, the one undoubted gleaming success of the British economic model. ‘A pound spent in Croydon is of far more value to the country than a pound spent in Strathclyde,’ to quote Boris Johnson, the Conservative party’s last surviving greyback. But that is to ignore how London itself is rapidly becoming unlivable for many Londoners.”

The old sop that an education and a move to the city is all that is required to get on died after 2008.  The university system has morphed into a debt-ridden Ponzi scheme more concerned with fleecing students than with equipping them for a life after economic growth.  Meanwhile London property rents are so high that even the higher pay on offer in the metropolis is insufficient to prevent homelessness.  Generation Z no longer buys the illusion, with far fewer of its number taking up the offer of a potentially unpayable student loan to earn a qualification that may not be worth the paper it is printed on.  The old system is broken.  But nobody within the contemporary Eloi has worked out what to put in its place.  As Chakrabortty points out:

“We rarely ask people what they want from the economy; if we did it more often, the answers might surprise us. The free-marketeers at the Legatum Institute did pose the question in a survey conducted in 2017. Top priorities for respondents were: food and water; emergency services; universal healthcare; a good house; a decent well-paying job; and compulsory and free education. At the bottom were owning a car and cheap air travel. HS2, a new runway at Heathrow or a garden bridge on the Thames didn’t even rank…”

The vacuum created within the elite both by their indifference to the suffering of ordinary people and by their lack of any practical alternative is currently playing into the hands of the false populists of the political right.  In the USA, Trump derangement syndrome – in which people get so wound up about Trump’s tweets that they forget that there is a presidential election next year and that they ought really to be presenting a coherent policy platform of their own – makes it very likely that Trump is going to be a two-term president.  Meanwhile, despite all the talk of “making America great again,” none of the fundamentals that have beset the US economy for the last decade have been resolved.  Sooner or later, the multi-trillion dollar debt run up by successive US administrations is going to become due; and when it does, the US will either have to default or print currency to inflate the debt away.  When that happens, the living standards of the majority of ordinary Americans are going to be crushed.

The small glimmer of hope in the UK is that the leaders of the Labour Party are promising a potentially popular alternative to the cosy neoliberal consensus of the last four decades.  That said, there is still considerable elitist opposition within the Labour Party, and the other UK parliamentary parties continue to defend the old order; preferring to find a means to ignore the Brexit result rather than address its underlying structural causes.

The growing clamour for a second referendum – the mendaciously titled “People’s Vote” – carries within it the same hubris as David Cameron’s casual assumption that winning the 2016 Brexit referendum was going to be easy.  Although it is increasingly likely that the UK parliament will vote for a second referendum, this is by no means a certainty.  As Owen Jones at the Guardian points out:

“Around 100 Labour MPs were predicted to declare in favour of a second referendum today; in the end, just 71 did so. If half of the parliamentary party voted for a second referendum, that would amount to less than a fifth of parliament; well over 100 Tory MPs would have to support it too. It is really difficult to see this happening…”

However, the bigger failing is that many within our version of the Eloi believe that securing a second referendum is in some way a victory in and of itself.  The automatic assumption being that the British people are now seized with remorse and will gladly vote to remain within the EU if only their elders and betters permit them the opportunity. 

While it is true that there is a huge majority opposed to Theresa May’s Tory Brexit, the polls are far closer when it comes to a hypothetical “in v out” choice.  John Curtice’s National Centre for Social Research has been tracking Brexit polling from the beginning.  Their latest poll of polls gives Remain only a modest 53% to 47% lead over Leave.  If this sounds like victory is in the bag, just remember that on Referendum day, Remain were leading Leave by 52% to 48%… which is another way of suggesting that not much has changed save for Theresa May’s appalling mishandling of the entire Brexit process.  Jones warns his fellow pro-remainers:

“If a referendum becomes the only option left, then Labour will have to campaign for remain, and make a great fist of it. But don’t have any illusions. The campaign will be even more bitter and vicious than the last; the culture war that has enveloped the country will get worse; millions of leave voters will be angered and even more disillusioned than before; and under a slogan of “tell them again”, leave may well win once more…”

It is also worth remembering that if it hadn’t been for the Scottish Nationalists delivering a resounding pro-remain vote north of the border in 2016, the gap between leave and remain would have been much greater.  If a reversal of the original result depends for its majority on the votes of Scots, this may well stoke an angry English nationalism among the ‘left behind’ regions that voted to leave last time.  Nor – given the noise they have been making since 2016 – can pro-remainers expect leave voters to go quietly back to the darkness from whence they came in the event that a second referendum reverses the result.

The same is true across the pond, where the “resistance” is pinning its hopes on ejecting Trump from the White House by impeaching him.  The trouble with this is that impeachment requires some kind of crime or abuse of power… media “reds under the bed” conspiracy theories won’t do.  Nor is a formal impeachment – the equivalent of bringing charges against someone – the end of the process.  Rather, following an impeachment vote in the House of Representatives, there has to be a trial in the Senate… i.e., the Republican-controlled Senate; which has to deliver a two-thirds vote to uphold the impeachment charge for Trump to be unseated. 

Meanwhile, Trump’s approval rating is the same as Obama’s at this point in his presidency; and Obama went on to easily win the 2012 election.  Rather than using procedural chicanery based on smear and innuendo – which is likely to be viewed as undemocratic in the regions that turned out for Trump in 2016 – the Democrat Party would do better to give Bernie Sanders another run (now that Clinton isn’t around to steal the nomination) and adopt a populist programme of government that can win back the voters who rallied behind the MAGA message.

The representatives of our contemporary Eloi are off on their annual jolly to Davos this month.  They would do well to take the time to consider the reasons why their neoliberal fantasy failed.  They might then want to listen to a broader spectrum of views and opinion than the usual narrow band of failed neoclassical economists and neocon strategists. 

At the end of Well’s story, the Eloi cannot be roused to fight for their own survival.  The time traveller is obliged to return to his own time leaving the Eloi to their fate.  One cannot help but wonder if our own version of the Eloi will share a similar outcome as our Morlock masses march into the darkness at the end of neoliberalism to devour them all.  For the moment, the are paralysed in the face of the relatively minor and benign crises of Brexit and Trump’s presidency.  One can only wonder how they will (fail to) respond when the true underlying crises of our age – economic collapse, resource depletion and environmental destruction – grow so great that we can no longer ignore them.

As you made it to the end…

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