The Puzzle We Face

This piece follows on from the author's election special essay, "The Hegemon Crack'd".

This piece follows on from the author’s election special essay, “The Hegemon Crack’d”.

Recently, in a typically thoughtful piece, the journalist John Harris unboxed a puzzle. His point was simple but pertinent. A number of certainties have passed, leaving us to engineer a future from very different and rather shakier foundations. Power blocks, familiar ideological splits, trade unions, the church and heavy industry, were used to highlight the crumbling anchor points that previously held the structures of society in place. It wouldn’t be too hard for us to add more items to the list. At the heart of Harris’ piece is a well-established sociological observation; with late-modernity things have gotten more uncertain. The solid and heavy structures of the past have become more fluid and mobile, our points of reference have lost their traction, heft and certainty. Or so it goes. The erosion of social structures, outlined most recently, to pick one example, in Wolfgang Streeck’s How Will Capitalism End?, place the burden on the individual whilst also giving us few reference points or support mechanisms from which to comprehend or negotiate what we are facing. Generally speaking, it is a point that has been made by a range of social theorists. Compared with this more solid past, Harris adds, ‘our own time looks like a bamboozling puzzle, yet to be solved by anyone who either holds or aspires to power’. The shifts seem so severe, he suggests, that bringing a future into existence cannot simply be achieved through recourse to our past. Both unnerving and liberating, this means that the future is a puzzle that needs some hard thinking and no little imagination. If we want to avoid lurching, dazed, into a shimmering horizon there is some thinking to be done.

In a recent piece I suggested that the cracking of hegemony had created more space for us to think. This particular moment is unusual in just how many possibilities we are presented with. The recent election result and the broader political malaise seems to have put a lot of possibilities on the table. A number of factors are converging to make the future seem like a much blanker canvass. From our current standpoint the future is a vacuum, waiting to be filled. This places great value on shaping ideas that will set that future in motion. The better job we make of imagining, the greater chance we have of filling the void. Without any action the vacuum is likely to filled with a hotchpotch of half-thoughts from the usual ‘strategists’ and, despite any apparent shifts, is likely to gently orientate itself to the comfort of a reheated version of what has gone before. Despite any obvious ruptures, there will be a tendency to cling to what is left of old certainties, a contorted nostalgia and unimaginative or ill-fitting orthodoxies.

A good deal of the recent discussion has been about bringing an end to neoliberalism. This is often approached as if it has suddenly run past its use-by date. I’m wondering if things will be that straightforward, especially as the meaning of the term is so contested. The water often gets muddied with discussion of the end of austerity. Of course, these aren’t the same thing. The mood is rapidly moving against austerity even, it seems, amongst some of its architects and agents. Austerity may prove easier to shift or to dent than neoliberalism. It shouldn’t be taken for granted that the space will automatically open-up for a new ‘art of governance’, as Michel Foucault once described it (he also said the left lacked its own one of these). In short, the terms of the puzzle that Harris points us towards are not certain. There may be remnants and traces of the underlying rationalities of a neoliberal order kicking around for some time.

Following the 2007-8 financial crisis Philip Mirowski pointed out that the stubbornness of neoliberalism was a consequence of the way that it has sunken into our everyday lives. The model of the market, as Wendy Brown describes it, reaches right down into organisations, state services, education, health, social media and everyday conduct. Its roots are deep and tangled. Something this tangled is a lug that will take some unpicking. And that is to assume that there is the collective desire to do so. However things might seem at the moment, we probably shouldn’t imagine that we will move smoothly and automatically into some new epoch. It may take some forceful and compelling thinking to clear out the wreckage and ensure the undertow doesn’t still sweep us along.

The key problem is that we could easily get trapped in a game of oppositions. If we try to move on by simply trying to take the opposite approach to some imagined neoliberal character, then it is the neoliberal who will still be setting the agenda. Possibilities will be limited if we get caught-up in attempts at an inverse neoliberal logic. Imagining the future by juxtaposing it against a neoliberal ethos is too restrictive and will not be enough to draw people in. Which takes us back again to Harris’ future puzzle.

Social theory will no doubt be valuable, but concepts should not simply be inherited. As Chris Green has shown in relation to the use of Gramsci, theories and concepts should be actively challenged, updated and developed. One way to do this is by turning theory into a space for interaction and collaboration. Interviews and dialogue around social theories can open new spaces and perspectives – such as in Katy Sian’s brilliant book Conversations in Postcolonial Thought, which is a model for creative and interrogative thinking. Ideas always improve in dialogue. It might be productive if everyone, if they wish, see themselves as an architect of the future — a puzzle solver. 

The future may seem distant but the battle over ideas has already started. Whether it’s about giving ourselves space to reflect and imagine or thinking laterally about sources of inspiration, participation is needed. We need both visions that draw people in and a clear idea of what needs to be undone. Getting sucked along or tangled in the dried roots of eroding governance structures is not the same as setting an agenda. A few weeks ago a seemingly unshakable version of a post-liberal order may have seemed inevitable, that moment has passed. Harris’ point about the bamboozling future we face is crucial and leaves the door open for us to find a solution. It turns out that this particular puzzle is to be played without any rules, for the moment at least.