Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Decoding the decade

This piece by me appeared in the Guardian last Saturday:

I am pleased to announce that, after many years spent at the cutting edge of scientific discovery, I have finally mastered the art of time travel. I am not at liberty to say exactly how, but I managed to scramble through one of those wormholes in the space-time continuum and I’m actually writing this column in November 2039. We’ve got it all here in the future, you know: teleporting, thinking robots, space elevators. The only slightly disconcerting thing about the 2030s is seeing the decade I have just left behind being recycled as part of the nostalgia industry.

For instance, there is a chain of “noughties” theme pubs here, called Strictlys, where all the bar staff have to wear stick-on goatee beards and they play Coldplay on a loop. Then there are the digital retro parties, where everyone has a good laugh at those primitive iPhones we put up with in the 2000s, and we all wonder how on earth we got through the long winter evenings with only 200 TV channels. And you only have to see people getting wistful about when the whole family used to watch The X Factor on a Saturday night to realise what a strange and omnivorous human urge nostalgia is.

Not that remembering the 2000s is all about wallowing pleasurably in kitsch. The New-New Labour politicians of the 2030s have been falling over each other to distance themselves from their New Labour predecessors by constantly reciting the mantra, “We must never go back to the failed policies of the noughties.” Strangely, though, they don’t mean the unregulated financial system which caused the money markets to crash and turned the bankers into folk devils at the end of 2008. Instead, one moment of ignominy gets mentioned ad nauseam: the winter of discontent of 2009, when the intransigence of all those public sector workers who resisted market “modernisation” caused the worst recession in living memory. Everyone here remembers the noughties as the dark ages to which we must never return – rather like the 1970s in your day, in fact.

In short, we in 2039 are suffering from a nasty bout of what Ferdinand Mount, way back in 2006, called “decaditis”. This tendency to package decades as unified entities is a relatively recent phenomenon, and it takes a while for each decade to accumulate its own set of historical cliches. At the end of 2009, for instance, no one really knew what the noughties stood for. There were a few brave efforts at instant retrospectives, but people’s hearts weren’t really in it. Every one could see that the decade was just a series of contingent moments held together arbitrarily by the Gregorian calendar.

You may remember a similar thing happened with the 1970s, which took some time to become crystallised in popular mythology. In a book about the decade published in 1980, Christopher Booker referred to it as “a kind of long, rather dispiriting interlude”, a merely transitional era with no distinctive characteristics. We had to wait a few years before the 1970s assumed such symbolic importance in the now familiar Thatcherite narrative of postwar national decline and our failed experiment in social-democratic politics. The problem with this kind of decadology is that it treats the past as a cautionary tale in which the ending seems inevitable, and thus views our forebears as stupid or na├»ve for not seeing the writing on the wall. The 1970s, or the noughties, come to seem as distant and alien as Pompeii, with nothing to teach us except how much more enlightened we are today.

It isn’t read much in 2039 but there is a novel called 1984, in which the hero, Winston Smith, works at the Ministry of Truth rewriting old editions of The Times, casting the previous versions into the “memory hole”, a chute leading to an incinerator. What the author, George Orwell, failed to realise is that in the future there would be no need for such censorship, because of our insatiable appetite for decadology and its infinite capacity for inducing selective memory.

Every so often here, an older person might dimly recall something about “bankers’ bonuses” or “sub-prime mortgages”, and for a brief moment it acts like a Proustian madeleine, a secret corridor into a forgotten past, just like snatches of the song “Oranges and Lemons” do for Winston Smith in 1984. But mention these phrases to anyone under 40 and you might as well be speaking in Latin.

Admittedly, one or two maverick historians are starting to put together an alternative history of the noughties. They point out that the economic crisis at the end of the decade led to a brief questioning of market fundamentalism and its relentless pursuit of growth, consumption and speculation at all costs. But then the market fundamentalists fought back and managed to present their version of the future as the only form of progress, so that everyone who disagreed with them came to seem like a dinosaur. Personally, I don’t think this alternative version of the noughties will ever catch on. As some people were pointing out even back in 2009, decadology has very little to do with history.