In political terms, my generation really did have a naughty nineties—and it made us complacentby Zoe Williams / February 22, 2018 / Leave a comment
You’ve heard of the secular cycle, I’m sure—or is it, like Universal Basic Income and the gut microbiome, one of those phrases that arrive in the vernacular so fast that you’re regurgitating it before you’ve truly digested it? In (very) brief, the theory is that societies go through 50-year cycles of violence. “Violence” here is not necessarily a bad thing, though obviously some of it is: it takes in strikes, civil rights movements, suffrage movements, even peace movements—most, in short, of what counts for human progress. All this tumult arrives every half-century or so, and then we endure flat, grey decades where much less happens.
For clarity, this is within-country disruption (disruptions, including world wars can knock the cycle for six), but it applies beyond any one country. The spikes of the most recent cycles took place, roughly, in 1870 (the Paris Commune was 1871), 1920 (a strike-ridden time when, in Orwell’s recollection, “a wave of revolutionary feeling” convulsed England), 1970 (rising militancy on the shopfloor and campuses), and—unless we have a radical change of direction—2020.
Malthusians ascribe the 50-year swing to times of plenty leading to population growth, leading to wage depression, leading to hardship, and finally the disruption. Marxists fixate instead on the ebb and flow of the class struggle—the balance tips in favour of the rentiers, who then over-extract, leading to hardship, leading to violence and, eventually, restored balance as the rentiers retreat. “Cliodynamic” history crunches all sorts of data, grasping for a scientific picture of progress.
What gives this ivory tower analysis poignancy is that Baby Boomers are universally agreed to have messed up everything. They are branded self-absorbed “sociopaths” by cultural commentators, and blamed by conservative analysts like David Willetts—a boomer—for taking “their children’s future” by cleaning up on homes and pensions. But, in the light of the secular cycle, those, like me, on the left in the generation below have their own reason for self-disgust.
Travelling in lockstep is the more intuitive father-and-son cycle, which is less easily counted, and so quite easily discounted too. Yet this is the one I can feel in my bones: the theory is that the father’s generation fights injustice, the son’s generation tires of the rhetoric, is discouraged by the disappointments, and sinks into indolence. Then the succeeding generation, alienated by this inertia and still labouring under the injustice, re-ignites the fight.
This puts today’s middle-aged squarely in the “son” bracket—we 40-somethings, the march-dodgers, the ludic carefree debt-bubblers, who took E and hugged instead of drinking beer and fighting, who invented “post-irony” to avoid having difficult conversations about horrible things, who turned “ideology” into a dirty word without recognising how ideological that was, for whom the nearest thing to a struggle was fighting for the right to party.
There was a lot to love about the Nineties; it was marked, culturally, by self-awareness, playful self-parody, a collective distrust of pomposity. You wouldn’t have got away with being Jacob Rees-Mogg in 1999. Even John Major, who by today’s lights looks like a relatively decent sober head, was ridiculous then. Cones hotline. Family values. “Sometimes we must understand a little less, and condemn a little more.” What a tosser, we said.
But to understand what was wrong with it, you have to go back to the Eighties: fundraisers for the miners’ strike, Greenham Common, hairy armpits, Labour Party meetings contorted by rueful anxiety that only affluent people (for whom the structural changes needed for Labour to come out on top would have been pretty painful) were at them.
But it wasn’t the internal contradictions that got us in the end, so much as all the failure: fights against cuts that were destined to happen, bloody battles for industries that died anyway. electoral defeat after electoral defeat. We had badges ready for the morning after, saying “Don’t blame me: I didn’t vote for them.”
Yet those contradictions were corrosive to resilience. They led to some caricatures containing an ounce too much truth (wasn’t lying down in front of a soldier at an airbase who was just trying to guard some weapons that nobody would use anyway, a little bit, well, melodramatic?) Was all this conflict really necessary, we began to wonder? Wouldn’t it be easier if we were all good guys, and all on the same side? Couldn’t we all be middle-class? Tony Blair had bitter opposition from his peers and seniors, but was initially pushing at an open door among younger voters.
Campaigning energy clustered around issues on which consensus could be reached at lowest political cost: Amnesty International letters to foreign dictators; anti-vivisection campaigns; gender and LGBT rights; anti-racism movements. The right had to learn some discomfiting right-on words, but these things could in the end be slotted quite neatly into their hyper-individualism, so long as you ignored all the structural factors that kept the inequality baked in. It is extraordinary, now, to consider how large fox hunting loomed on the political landscape. I mean, I like foxes as much as the next man; but what does it mean, to make Renard your shibboleth issue?
The catastrophic failure of the son-generation is that it never quite cares enough to take the reins, or when it does, it’s with such a languid sense of desert—think David Cameron—that the reins are effortlessly wrested back by a bunch of cantankerous pensioners. Here we all are, a good halfway through our lives, waiting for Ken Clarke to ride to the rescue. Waiting for Mum and Dad to stop fighting over the map and start driving again. Writing about a generation war between millennials and baby-boomers, with a squirelly, Men-Behaving-Badly shuffle: “well, don’t look at me. I didn’t do anything.”