the hollowness of the times

the hollowness of the times.


Berlin graffiti on contemporarty relationships and identity.

Back in the ’70s, my Dad, was amongst the first to have a sense of the irredeemable fatuity and vacuousness of the coming neo liberal times.

In moments of Indian Pale Ale induced loquaciousness on smokey after-school afternoons, this lifelong socialist would say that the absolute best thing to be was, and here his Dublin brogue would give way momentarily to the Home Counties, ‘of independent means’. As that decade soured into the head on reversals of the 80s, at least for Liverpool folk, he turned to simply snarling, ‘Get the money son, just get the money.’

In marked contrast to these words was the message in the Liverpool Christian Brothers school I attended in the mid ’70s. I can remember a particular English lesson discussing Bill Naughton’s story collection, ‘The Goalkeeper’s Revenge’. The short, goateed and fiercely irascible Mr Smith asked us had we anything to say about one of the characters’ assertions that…

‘….you never owned nowt rilly unless you’d made it yusself or earned the munney to buy it.’

We looked at him bemused. He stalked the front row and. as pupils today would say, ‘got in our faces’.

‘Anyone at home?’, he dripped saracasm into our silence.

He prowled to the back, gently fuming. Then,his tone now painfully bereft.,’….nothing?’

Appalled, he stormed back to the front and slams his copy on the desk.

‘Isn’t it true for God’s sake? It’s true isn’t it?’

He stared at us wide eyed and disbelieving. Exasperated with ourselves, sighing and tutting we could only nod and shake our heads amazed at our own stupidity.

I think the French philosopher Louis Althusser had exactly this kind of exchange in mind when he redefined ideology in the 70s as simply the weave of elementary assumptions out of which our world and our sense of ourselves is made. In Althusser’s famous example when a policeman calls out in the street we all turn believing in both the policeman’s authority to call us to account and our own flawed natures. That Mr Smith felt justified in his anger came from the fact that in this weave of assumptions, that he, as a good follower of the Cambridge literary critic, F.R. Leavis, often referred to as just ‘Life’, we’d failed to articulate the blindingly obvious, that unearned material gain was no real gain at all.

As it turned out, of course, my Dad’s bitter imprecations turned out to be a better guide to future developments. What’s interesting though is that Mr Smith’s specific point that unearned wealth may indeed not make you happy is still ultimately true, Western societies no longer make any effort to knit together the weave of such humane, civilised assumptions that might make it feel like its obviously, gobsmackingly, ‘can’t say you’re a grown up person if you don’t get it’, kind of true. That is, unquestionably there true, just like Althusser said ideology should be. And with it of course any, as it were, ‘official’ expectation to act accordingly.

What we have now, in contrast to that ‘fullness’, that warm broth, of social democratic ideology is the thin gruel of hardnecked neo liberalism where even the sick are expected to be business like about it and the goal for everyone is to realise their individual potential, ideally as an entrepreneur and then a ‘rentier’, usually of property, and thereby getting to that ideal state…. ‘of independent means’.

As Nancy Fraser (1) has argued these neo liberal ideological fragments have been, mostly unintentionally, energised by the coopting amongst other things, of feminist campaigns for the recognition of women’s rights. So, although at one level, everybody can celebrate the fact that Christine Lagarde or Angela Merkel are achieving the powerful positions formerly marked for men only, the message of their success is often inflected to suggest social disadvantage is no longer holding any woman back and if you’re not a ‘success’, well, you know who to blame.

In his in vino veritas kind of way, my father had a premonition of this same ideological manoeuvre in relation to disabled people. What ‘the powers that be’ as he called them wanted, was for disabled people to become ‘can do’ types who cheerily told all and sundry they did not need or want help.

I only fully understood what he meant when I watched the Paralympics from London in 2012 and, realised these disabled people, though I admired them like I admire all sporty types, were healthy disabled people, whereas most disabled people are old or sick. Not writhing in agony sick (although of course some are) , but the kind of sick where the only personal best they’re aiming for each day is taking less than a couple of hours to get up and dressed.

The Paralympics were, for me, a huge global event that dovetailed neatly with this wilful blindness of neo liberal ideology, ‘celebrating’ the disabled, but hiding sickness, disease and dependency. Is it a leap too far to suggest the lack of an irresistible public outcry at the appalling targetting of disabled people for cuts by the British government is, in part at least, related to this Olympic uncoupling of disability and sickness, or more broadly, dependance?

Indeed Baroness Warnock, distinguished philosopher of ethics, has made the modest proposal that older people should they begin to suffer with dementia really should consider whether they have the right to expect care from others and if their dependancy shouldn’t perhaps be curtailed by their taking their own life. Presumably she expects the disabled, faced with dementia, should take particular note.(2)

But accepting, as Fraser suggests in summary, that in our society’s attenuated self image, ‘there is no self evidently good adult dependancy’, what does that leave our sense of what ‘Life’, as Mr Smith would have said, is? And the answer, given one has achieved as Fraser says ‘the androcentric ideal of individual independance’, would seem to be ‘fun’ and, in a ‘ ‘psychologising’ of our hollowed out social relatons, self help or self improvement.

This is being addressed creatively in remarkable contemporary films, such as ‘Gloria’ from Chile, or ‘La Gran Belleza’ from Italy depicting a generation in later middle age, who have achieved independance but have by definition no one they can depend on or who in turn needs them (with the exception interestingly of still older women, who are their home helps, but seem to exist in a somehow anchored world the main characters no longer know how to find). So they party, smoke, go to discos, and have casual sex.

A neighbour of ours here in Berlin, ‘unattached’ as she says, well in to her seventies, botoxed and breast implanted, recently asked my wife how old her father was.

‘Early sixties’, she replied.

‘Ah,’ said the neighbour, ‘exactly my target group’.

Bungee jumping, paint balling, tree climbing and all manner of other challenging adventure activities are also favoured means of trying to revive jaded horizons of pleasure. A German friend of mine recently announced he was going to the Hungary, ‘because there’s a place there where you can fire real tanks.’

For Althusser, of course, when control of people by Ideological State Apparatuses, like education or the media, is palpably wearing a bit thin, then the state will turn to repression. So perhaps the ‘powers that be’ realise the game is pretty much up ideologically, so we are presented with drones, total surveillance, secret prisons and what the German political philosopher Rainer Forst has called the ‘strange Gods’ of the absolutely implacable markets.(3) Like at the first stage of the Inquisition, the state is showing its people the torture instruments, just so we’re all clear they’re there.At other times it feels as if our global spy masters are like the fifth century Saint Simon Stylites sitting atop his pillar in the desert, free to observe, but with the global villagers regarding them as irrelevant and just a bit embarassing.

And that’s exactly where we should seek to keep them by confidently arguing that our current culture is based on wholly inadequate scraps of ideas about who we are and is specifically blind to both the interdependance that is the fundamental condition of our happiness and the radical fragility that makes us who we are.

1. Nancy Fraser. Fortunes of Feminism. Chapter 9 (Verso 2013)

2. London, December 14, 2004 (

3. Rainer Forst. Der Spiegel. No.34. 2013. P.106ff.


One thought on “the hollowness of the times”

  1. I kind of like the piece but I am bemused by the reference to Althusser. He strangled his wife (to death) and nobody who was anybody in Paris at the time was surprised. I realize no one is perfect but still….

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