A country in search of its future

Hustings have been taking place around the country. The two candidates for political leadership of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland have taken part in head-to-head debates on national television. Both have set out new policy agendas departing significantly from their party’s previous manifesto, lurching to the right on issues such as tax, public spending and education. Yet there is no general election. The new Prime Minister – successor to the current incumbent, a disgraced, farcical and now largely absent figure who appears (holidays permitting) to be undertaking a sort of bucket-list tour of his duties while the country he is supposed to run lurches from crisis to crisis – will be selected by 180,000 or so Conservative Party members, people likely to be middle-aged or older (most are over 60), relatively wealthy and located in affluent constituencies in southern England. They are also more likely to be male, less likely to be graduates and more likely to be from higher socio-economic groups than their counterparts in the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Scottish nationalist parties. Such are the people who, in a manner only marginally more democratic that that used by the Chinese Community Party to select its new leaders, will decide which wealthy Tory next gets a go at running the country.

It is not possible to say with accuracy what Conservative Party members think and believe. However, it is clear from the dizzying escalation of far-right policy proposals from the two candidates how they and their advisers view them: They are, they believe (and there is a measure of contempt in this belief, I suspect), in favour of redistributing income from the poorest to the wealthiest parts of the country, they dislike political correctness  and ‘woke’ culture and consider the benefits of a liberal education to be the preserve of the rich. They believe (against all evidence to the contrary) that grammar schools are the key to social mobility (the version where the deserving poor get on and the rest get stuffed), want less spent on public services and believe in tax cuts in preference to ‘hand outs’. They are not keen on human rights or public protest, considering these impediments to more noble aims such as (one imagines) protecting monuments and shipping refugees out of the country. They are not overly troubled by climate change and remain enthusiasts of Brexit. Above all, perhaps, they believe the nation’s salvation to lie in the past – whether by restoring Thatcherism (the socio-economic death cult that captured the party in the 1980s and has kept a firm grip on its supporters’ thinking ever since, such that no party leadership candidate, even now, dares to disavow it), reviving grammar schools or returning the country to levels of income inequality not seen since the early 1900s.

This is a caricature, of course, but it is evidently one in which Tory parliamentarians believe and to which they consistently appeal, and I suspect it is not very far from the mark. After all, party members represent the base which the parliamentary party has sought to appease in its drift to the right and its embrace of policies on issues such as migration and civil rights that can fairly be described as extremist and authoritarian. Simon Kuper in the Financial Times neatly summed up what the Conservative Party has become in the course of this journey into the darkness: an ‘old people’s party’ that doesn’t care about the future; one prepared to ignore ‘the dearth of new homes, record low birth-rates, the threat to funding for British university research through the EU’s Horizon scheme, reduced opportunities for Britons to work or study abroad, not to mention climate change’, that ‘takes the geriatric side in culture wars, keeps house prices rising, and redistributes not to the poor but to pensioners’ and that ‘imports a non-voting workforce while encouraging geriatric grumbles about immigration’. It is a party that sides ‘with wealth – held chiefly by the elderly – against incomes’.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that the party’s supporters continue to invoke the memory of Margaret Thatcher. Her ‘right to buy’ policy (a right, like many espoused by the party, available only to those who could afford it) of selling off social housing at discounted rates and her belief in a ‘property-owning democracy’ created a new social sub-class of well-off homeowners who saw their houses principally as investments, while simultaneously denying the less well-off access to decent, affordable housing, thus enabling the rapid escalation of property prices and rental rates. Protecting this new wealth, acquired at little cost and with little effort on the part of those who benefited (though at enormous cost to many of those who didn’t), has become the business of a party that cares little for the troubles of the young or for the ongoing housing crisis it created. For subsequent generations the boom in property ownership has contributed to mass indebtedness and precarity, making work for millions of people (the young, especially) not much more than a form of indentured servitude linked to debt repayment.

The revival of Thatcher’s flagship right-to-buy policy continues to be a popular fallback for Conservative leaders, particularly when new ideas are in short supply (as, to be frank, they generally are). The policy is, however, indicative of more than just a party out of ideas. It demonstrates a wilful disregard for the well-understood negative consequences of right to buy, as well as indifference to the needs of those languishing in grubby, insecure private accommodation whose lives could be transformed by the ready availability of decent social housing. Like the Johnson government’s proposal to reintroduce imperial measurements and the frequent harking back to the supposed golden age of grammar schools, it is a populist policy calculated to appeal to a certain constituency. It is hard to gauge how serious ministers are when they make such proposals (it could just be the latest front in the government’s tedious attempt to foster ‘culture wars’). But the attempt to glamorise the past says a great deal about both the leaders and the followers of modern Conservatism. Imperial weights and measures may be a part of our history and language, and perhaps even our identity (as the government’s consultation suggests), but they have not been taught in schools for generations and should certainly not be part of our future. This misty-eyed nostalgia for a fondly imagined golden age in which everything was as it should be, and everyone knew his or her place, is far from harmless. It is steeped in a distrust of foreigners and a fear of change and difference. And while it may be understandable that, in a time of unpredictable change and unprecedented, existential challenge, leaders strive to hold on to what we (or they and their friends) have, it should be just as clear that in such moments – in this moment – we need change and difference. More of the same will only edge us closer to the precipice.

Yet this appears to be all that is on offer. Even the Labour Party – increasingly an opposition in name only – refuses to offer anything new or better, preferring to shackle itself to the sinking ship of British Conservatism rather that engage with the real challenges we face and devise a vision of a different, fairer and more sustainable future people can actually get behind (or at least consider). In such an environment, the candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party can make proclamation after proclamation in their search for the all-important Golf Club bar vote, cheerfully recanting them the next day if they don’t fly right. Rishi Sunak’s proposal to phase out university degrees that do not improve students’ ‘earning potential’ is a typical foray into the clubhouse lounge, a flip, kneejerk attempt to appeal to those who think arts degrees are rubbish (‘not worth the paper they are written on’) and academic teaching is a hotbed of steaming woke (bloody Marxists!). Sunak is on comfortable, familiar ground. The press has been banging on about ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees for years. His target, of course, is not Oxford or Cambridge. The privileged, privately educated sons and daughters of the wealthy can continue to study what they like at the elite finishing school of their choice. His target is the newer universities, the red-brick unis and the former polys, the places people like us send our kids. No history or philosophy for them. No liberal arts. You can forget all that. That’s not for you. You need to get ready for work! Be productive! Be deserving! Like Thatcher’s right to buy policy, it’s a divisive ‘fuck you’ to some dressed up as freedom for all.

The irony of all of this, of course, is that we need more access to arts and humanities not less. In a moment of acute challenge, we need people who can think differently and see the bigger picture. We need people who can think critically, who are tolerant and civically minded, who are compassionate and thoughtful. Rather than closing humanities courses and discouraging working-class students from taking an interest in the arts, we should be looking to ensure that arts and the humanities are an ongoing, integral part of everyone’s education, and that the discovery of a vocation does not mean the end of a person’s wider education. We are all human – none more than anyone else – and we all deserve the chance to explore, to be curious and creative, to be what we bloody well want to be! Education should be about opening doors, not closing them, now more than ever, when we must learn to be and do different. The Conservative Party leadership campaign has underlined how shoddily we are led. We need political leadership that builds a bridge to the future, not leadership that holds on to the past and refuses to do better. We must break free of all the old traps. That is what leading for the future would look like. Instead, for now, we have leaders and followers desperate to hold on to the past, even after it has gone. For those left behind by the Tories’ dreams of a suburban paradise of shining cars and lush green lawns (there are no hosepipe bans in paradise), there is the generational accumulation of misery where work, debt and death are the only certainties – and hope, the elusive, joyful, fluttering thing with feathers, has long since been silenced, shot dead and stuffed. We should not wait for change to come. We should not ask politely, caps twisted in our sooty fingers. Freedom, after all, is never given. It has to be taken.

Ten provocations against the end of the world

I have roots but the land in which they grow belongs to someone else. As I come from nothing, I work. I am a teacher. I am a post man. I work in an office. I work hard. I am paid for the work I do. But I do not control it and only dimly understand its purpose and value. That is the transaction. I seem to be working harder and harder. There are more and more tasks, less time to spend on each. I work most evenings and most weekends, just to keep on top of things. The demands seem unrealistic. Some things do not get done. It is my fault. I did not organize my time well enough. Yet there is no time in which to do this. I am not sure what to do about this.

I pay rent for the roof over my head, but I will never own it. It is more than I can afford but the area is friendly, and the kids would hate to move. The schools are ok, which is not nothing, not these days, when everything is hanging by a thread. The landlord takes much more than half of what I earn. The rest goes on food and heating and clothes for the kids, maybe a holiday. I cannot save my money. I have no pension. I have no protection of any sort. My life is making people I will never know rich or, more likely, richer (I take some consolation from knowing that it cannot be making them much richer!). I wonder if I am getting what I deserve. I did badly at school. I must be lacking something. Courage, maybe.

I do not feel my work is recognized. When I do a good job, it is not acknowledged. They do not value me. I worry they are trying to get rid of me. I turned 50 last year. I should not take it personally, but I do. It is making me unwell. But I cling on. I need to. Sometimes, I wake in the night sick with fear. I have no idea how I will live once I can no longer work. Who will take care of me? How will I pay them? What if I can’t? What will they do with me? There will be nothing for the kids. I will leave no trace. No one will remember me. I think like this all the time. I am scared nearly all the time. I don’t know what to do.

Most of the people I know would like things to be different. They are struggling too. They are tired of working, tired of worrying, tired of it all. Sick and tired. They know something isn’t right. They are not stupid. We talk about it often. No-one can believe what is happening. Everything is falling apart, yet everyone carries on as though things were always like this, and nothing could ever change. How did things get so bad? We think it cannot go on like this, yet it never ends. Work, debt, drink and the Daily Mail. I scroll through my social media or stare at the TV. It’s all the same, all shit, and all the same shit, over and over again. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. And I can’t stop it. I can’t turn it off. The same slop, reheated and served up, every bloody day. What happened to me? There is no relief. I feel agitated, angry. No matter how tired I feel, I cannot sleep. I want to resist. Is anyone listening? Does anyone give a fuck?

I feel alone. When did things get so disconnected? When did I become so absent? I used to like music.  I used to draw and write poetry. Somehow, these things stopped having value to me. I often think, if I could only go back, if I could only find value in these things again, everything would be different. I used to take evening classes. Creative writing. Life drawing. Chekhov’s plays. The feeling I put into reading The Seagull. Reading All my sons. How I felt every line! The teacher was amazed. I cried. And then the novels, the Penguin modern classics. There was always one in my coat pocket. One a week, paid for with my YTS money. I knew exactly what they were about. All this art, I thought, all for me, written for me, painted for me. I couldn’t get enough of it. I felt plugged into the universe through it. I will never feel like that again. I will never feel that connected again.

I had style back then. I meant something. And, God, I paid attention to things. I was so present. I saw everything. It was as though I was collecting experiences, making everything count. I wanted to know everything and anything I didn’t know got written down, in these big A4 pads. Dozens of them. I wrote everything in those things. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a painter. But then, when it came to picking a career, I quietly shelved all my ambitions. Or, more accurately, I reframed them. If I can’t be a painter, I’ll be a technical artist. If I can’t be a poet, I’ll be a reporter. In the end, I didn’t become any of the things I wanted to be. I never allowed myself to think that big or that different. But I became something, and I put my talents to some use. I did a job. I met a girl. I had a family. I tried my best. I believe I did. I am still trying. It’s my best quality.

Of course, a better world is possible. We all know that. Things could be better for all of us. Global temperature rises could be kept below 1.5° (the UN says it is only a matter of political will), democratic politics could be revived, and morality could be restored to public life. We could base our politics around wellbeing and sufficiency instead of permanent economic growth. We could build a just society. Education could support human development rather than economic development. Yet we don’t do any of these things. It feels as though there is nothing we can practically do to make things better. It is easier to imagine the world ending than the world changing. This hurts because our desire for different is both personal and political. It is the same desire, and it is just as urgent. And I know where we should start, with our hands in the soil, making new meanings, for ourselves and for the world, even if it means picking up bloody great sods of earth and bloody chucking them. Look at us, unpicking civilization! The cheek of it!

People are waiting, I see that. We are waiting for the future to start. The future we want to see. What if we stop waiting? What if we try to live the future now? What if we try to be the change we want to see? Where would we start?  Can I walk away from my job? Can I start something else? Are there other people who feel the same way? Where do we go? How do we start? Who will help me? Who will I help and how? I know that hope can drain us. Like a net forever cast, forever drawn up empty. No-one wants to live like that. We need to fix our hope with something, to mix it with work, with life, with friendship, with love. Sometimes, living with hope can be harder than living without it. How do we make our resistance a part of our everyday life? How do we live with love, with joy, with fellowship? How can we embed our hope in activism and social purpose? How can we make a better story? Let’s not wait for one to be written for us.

We have been wrong about everything! We have believed in all the wrong things. We have thought ourselves better when we weren’t. We have ignored those to whom we should have listened. We have trusted the wrong people. We have elected the wrong people. We have been stupid and naïve. We have not thought hard enough about things. We have not paid enough attention. We have assumed everything will be ok. We have kept quiet. Our priorities have been all wrong. We have organized our societies and economies in the interests of a few selfish people. We have let them amass huge fortunes, buy yachts, jets, football teams, politicians and countries. We have become used to hopelessness or learned to ignore it. Now, we worry change is not possible. It is hard to imagine what momentum exists to heal the planet and build fairer societies outrunning our willingness to destroy it in the name of private profit. We are in a death spiral, arms and legs wrapped hungrily around the machine that is plunging us further and further into the darkness. Maybe.

I can’t make proper sense of it. It doesn’t seem possible to think our way out of this. We don’t want to go back to how we were before Covid but at the same time we seem unable to make anything new. We want a world in which all our stories can make sense. We want to be more than the backdrop to some one-percenter’s story, like the stuffed-mouthed servants in a Jane Austen adaptation. There are too many irregular shaped pegs hammered into regular shaped holes. But where to start? Maybe it is too late. It feels that way sometimes. It is easy to think the problems facing the planet are nothing to do with us. What, after all, can we do? It is surely for the politicians, the energy companies, the billionaires. But people can change things. They have before. But if we are to change and make a better future we have to be open to possibility, to unpredictability, to doing and being different. We have to trust ourselves and others, and work together, with hands, brains and hearts, to create something that is new and our own. We must be willing to fight and bear hardship. We can’t just believe what we believe. We have to live it. We must be prepared to be hit over the head, locked up or worse. Rather than wait for change, we need to become its agents. Perhaps most of all, we need to find in our own personal distress and disaffection the germ of something better and the motivation to work together to create it, working from the ground up without any guarantee of success or any certainty that the political environment will change. We must do it together, our hands black with the same soil. Whatever people’s level of entry for engaging is where we should begin. However low and useless and disaffected we feel, that is the base. We have to believe different is possible. We have to keep the faith. As James Baldwin wrote, ‘The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us, and the light goes out’.

Work, again

We don’t talk enough about work, which is strange, given how large it looms in our lives and how much of our time is spent either preparing for or doing it. I have tried to write about work before (most recently here and also more directly here), largely out of a feeling that far from offering us the freedom, meaning and security promised by politicians (who, in most cases, have little practical experience of it, though they enthusiastically espouse its virtues to the rest of us), work, as we currently conceive it and most of us experience it, is a source of meaningless and pointless drudgery and a shameful waste of human potential. Work – though it is not just work, it is also the things that compel us to do it, and to do more and more of it – is making us miserable. It is making us sick. It takes up too big a space in our lives. It asks too much of us, for too little reward (for unfair levels of reward). We need to rethink and reform it, as we do the systems of education that support and perpetuate it, usually to the exclusion of other things that matter, arguably much more. Work is the ideological cuckoo in the nest, crowding out every other kind of use or outcome, every other way of making sense of and valuing ourselves and our world.

I felt drawn to the topic again after watching Severance, a brilliant, high-concept sci-fi thriller (on Apple TV+), written by Dan Erickson and directed by Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle. The central conceit of the show is that workers can undergo a surgical procedure that separates – or severs – their work selves (called ‘innies’) from their home selves (their ‘outies’). Once these workers get in the elevator to the ‘severed’ floor of Lumon Industries, the cult-like company for which they work, a chip implanted in their brains is triggered and they forget entirely who they are in the outside world. When they leave eight hours later the chip is deactivated and they have no recollection of anything they did at work or even what job they do (it seems the innies are not sure either, beyond an acknowledgement that the work is ‘mysterious’ and ‘important’). The innies, in effect, spend all their time at work. They have no life or memory of anything outside of the office. They know no one on the outside. Their lives, for all intents and purposes, belong to their employers, and are lived out among the swivel chairs, photocopiers and potted plants. They are, in many respects, perfect employees!

When newly severed employee Helly (Britt Lower) starts work in the macro-data refinement department of Lumon, she is by turns disorientated, resentful, angry and rebellious. Where is she and how did she get there? Why can’t she remember anything about herself (she recalls the names of the states but not which state she was born in)? ‘Am I livestock?’ she asks. When she tries to leave, dashing out into the stairwell and deactivating her chip, her outie sends her back in. Her new boss Mark (Adam Scott) explains that ‘Every time you find yourself here, it is because you chose to come back.’ And, of course, in a sense this is true. Helly’s innie is only there because her outie wants her to be. But in another sense, the only sense that matters to innie Helly, it is not true at all. The bifurcation of consciousness created by the severance procedure makes her effectively a captive of her other self or consciousness, her outie: a helpless, infantilized inmate of a pristine, sterile prison of endless narrow white corridors and partitioned workstations, unable to leave when she wants to, doing work she doesn’t understand, for reasons no one seems able to explain.

From this very promising premise, the series builds carefully and cleverly to a conclusion that manages to be largely satisfying to the viewer, yet still elusive in many respects (I wanted to know more, I must admit, but, of course, without the mystery there is no show). The writer’s plausible vision of a near future of menacing mega-corporations and captive, submissive employees is meticulously realised, both visually and by the actors who deliver uniformly thoughtful and sympathetic performances, elevating an already excellent script. It is easy to see why severance might be an appealing option for employees, for the outies. It replaces hours of drudgery and humiliation with a kind of cognitive blank. It enables people to live their lives and not think about what goes on at work, or to worry about it. It makes work weigh less, reduces the space we use to cope with and process it – the dark, glowering shadow in all the half-lit rooms of our lives. We soon discover that, for outie Mark, it is a way of coping with the sudden death of his wife, offering a kind of twist on the central conceit of Charlie Kaufman’s (equally brilliant) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It is also clear why employers might be interested in severing their employees. It gives them greater power and control over workers, while making them almost entirely unaccountable for the conditions in which they work (when innie Mark is injured at work his outie receives a note giving a fake account of what happened and a restaurant voucher). Severance also makes workers more malleable and dependent, infantile almost, while freeing them of outside distractions or worries that they might otherwise bring with them to the office.

But what I think the show evokes most brilliantly is the sense of being trapped, not so much in a job as at work – the feeling of there being no escaping the necessity to work, of being the uncomprehending victim of circumstances you are powerlessness to change. It is the dismal, tormented existence of the innies that drives the tension in the story, and that is also responsible, I suspect, for much of its resonance with viewers. Most of us will recognize the show’s description of the pointlessness of much of what we do while ‘at work’, the tedious passing of time in activities that, far from helping us achieve our potential as human beings, actively thwart it. Also familiar are the ordinary, everyday humiliations of entering a space and surrendering for a time a part of our agency, the full ownership of our selves. We accept that for long periods – eight hours or more – our time belongs to someone else, and we must do anything we are ‘reasonably’ asked to do during our contracted hours. And then there are the little inducements and incentives, the rituals and rewards of the workplace, the team-building exercises and wellness sessions, the gestures towards familial sentiment. All wonderfully observed, all so familiar. And, of course, as innie Mark explains, we do all of this because we choose to. It is all with our agreement; all, we presume, for the best (after all, we know nothing else). But what choice do we really have? Evidently, very little. If you think employment sucks, you should try unemployment! Like Helly, we might well want to walk away, but we cannot.

Wherever I have worked, whatever the job, and however much I have enjoyed or felt fulfilled by it, I have experienced a Sunday-night dread of returning to work the next day – a sort of pervasive fearfulness and sadness that I can’t shake off. I think we all feel it sometimes, to varying degrees. It doesn’t seem to be tied to any task. It isn’t just a feeling that there is something in the schedule that is just too difficult or unmanageable (though it is sometimes that). It is much less well defined. I think it is to do with this uneasy balance between work and home life, between our bifurcated selves. We think of our home self as the true one, the free one. When we return to work, it is as though we put on a mask, so that the work self can emerge. We pretend to be someone else. We submit. We put on a uniform (even when that uniform is jeans and a t-shirt). We agree to the rules, follow the training, do as we are told (to protect ourselves or so they tell us). We let them monitor and evaluate us. We let them surveil us. We allow ourselves to be moved around like office furniture. Like Severance’s innies and outies, we have different identities, different desires, and these sometimes conflict. To be at work we put a part of us aside, subvert some of our desires, do things our home self would never do. As we get older, the more we work, the more the out-of-work self seems to dwindle, and our real self becomes less tangible, harder to see. The effort to keep the two selves apart becomes more difficult to bear. But we know very well what it is like to be two different people. What must it be like to be one person all the time? Liberating, I imagine.

Work would not, of course, be so bad if there were not so much of it, or if we were able to think differently about it. We are stuck with the idea that work is essential, not only economically, but for character and morality. The ‘hard-working’ poor are the deserving poor. Those who do not embrace the righteous disciplines of work are lazy, feckless, often drunk, probably criminal, and, in most cases, stupid, or so the familiar anti-welfare Conservative narrative goes (paying them not to work just encourages them). We are compelled to go to work not because the outputs of our work are essential to society or because what we need to achieve can only be achieved in eight hours-plus per day, five days-plus a week, but, rather, for reasons of discipline and control. Submitting to this discipline keeps us on the straight and narrow (precarity and indebtedness also help), while also giving us the means to have nice things such as smart phones, televisions and computers. It is the price we pay. But it is increasingly clear that we don’t have to, not really, and that far from giving workers the structure and stability they need and crave, work is depressing and demoralizing us, while failing to deliver either security or freedom from poverty. There is evidence that a shorter working week would make people more productive and happier and that a four-day working week would slash our carbon footprint, yet we seem to be working longer and longer hours, in lower-paid, less-secure work. The pandemic has prompted 60 companies in Britain to trial a four-day working week, in what may be the biggest pilot scheme to take place anywhere in the world. This is positive news, an indicator, perhaps, that the dial has finally begun to shift. It might be hard to think of a future without work, but it is certainly possible to imagine a world with a lot less of it.

But much more needs to change. There needs to be a much greater rebalancing of priorities, as well as greater recognition that education is not just for work, but for the cultivation of the whole self. We need to be prepared to rethink and reimagine all aspects of education, and particularly its point and purposes. For too long, we have accepted a narrative of education as holding only private value, as an essentially economic transaction, preparing us for work but for little else. We have become used to a system of education that reproduces privilege and that routinely fails most of the people who pass through it. We have allowed policymakers to tell us that there is only one educational outcome that really matters, and that economic benefits override benefits of every other sort. This must change. We have to break with the patterns of the recent past, the dumb refusal to see value in citizenship, culture, politics, history, poetry, philosophy, and the arts, and to limit access to these things to the wealthy. They are not luxuries, however. They are all a part of what makes us human. My old boss Alan Tuckett used to say, quoting Emma Goldman, ‘If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution’. I couldn’t agree more. No revolution is worth having unless it values all the things that make us human, and cultivates them equally, giving everyone, at every age and stage of life, the chance to make their lives better, to connect with others and create new possibilities, for themselves and their communities. I don’t despise work, not by any means, and it is a legitimate aim of education, of course. But it is not everything. It is not even the main thing. And if we neglect the cultivation of critical thinking, the creative arts and the humanities, education for democracy and environmental awareness, among other things, we risk creating further generations of people ill-equipped to cope with the urgent challenges we face, including, and especially, the profound existential challenge of climate breakdown. As educators, we must try to disrupt and subvert our work-orientated curricula and break down the walls that keep privilege for the privileged and condemn the majority to a bleak diet of work-related training and basic skills, and a lifetime of low-paid work, precarity and indebtedness. As workers, we must challenge and resist the normalization of the nine-to-five corporate rhythm, contest the factory beat, especially now when it is truly, though perhaps only momentarily, challengeable. We should call out dehumanizing practices at work and challenge the freedom-subverting influence of employers and government. The truth about the ideology of work is that it really isn’t normal or natural or good. It does not make us more disciplined, more moral or more deserving. We really do deserve better. All of us.

Barbarism begins at home

Last Monday, I arrived in England for the first time in more than two years. As I drove from the ferry terminal, crawling through the backed-up rush-hour traffic around Hull, I tuned into BBC Radio 4. A former Conservative government minister, Alan Duncan, was explaining why the UK had to be cautious in implementing sanctions against Russian oligarchs. It was complex, he explained. Interests were intertwined and could not be taken apart without inflicting hurt on ourselves. We had to proceed cautiously, slowly, or the consequences could be devastating, catastrophic even, for British interests (I’m paraphrasing, of course). Duncan spoke confidently and with practised fluency about the energy industry. He was plausible, convincing. A few days later, I read that Duncan, who appears to have acquired the increasingly silly and meaningless title of ‘Sir’, works for energy trader Vitol Service Ltd, a company which, with fellow energy firm Mercantile & Maritime (MME), had entered into a consortium to buy a £3.5 billion stake in an oil project run by Russian energy giant Rosneft. The deal, as reported by Open Democracy, has so far escaped criticism from the UK Government, unlike the deal between BP and Rosneft. MME is a major donor to the Conservative Party, while Vitol has strong links to the Tories, not only through Duncan but through the donations of the trader’s former chairman, Ian Taylor. None of this was disclosed in the interview with Duncan. From the listener’s perspective, he was speaking with the authority of a dispassionate and knowledgeable former minister rather than as the representative of private interests or as an individual with a substantial private stake in the weakening of sanctions on Russian energy.

It is difficult to know who or what to believe. Politicians routinely speak for undisclosed interests and lobby aggressively behind the scenes for them. Supposed independent voices are often nothing of the sort. The politics we see are the tip of the iceberg. What we don’t see are the swirling currents of influence and preferment, the backroom deals and private lobbying, the unregistered favours, and secret obligations. The real politics, the real-world operation of power and money, is little reported or understood, or even, for the most part, acknowledged. The guff in the papers is just for the punters (the ‘partygate’ scandal is, among other things, an example of how little this stuff matters to those in power). It is almost incidental. Many Members of Parliament (though by no means all – there are still some very good ones) clearly see their own parliamentary work in this way. It has value only in so far as it opens doors and makes them the right connections, gets them the relevant clearances and opens channels of intel and influence, all with the prospect of substantial private remuneration, during or after their political career. The rest is largely for show. And it feels like it too. Minister after minister appears on television, sneering and dissembling their way through interviews, making claims which are at best distortions of the truth and in some cases downright lies, usually unchallenged by journalists who no longer see it as part of their job to hold the powerful to account (or are not sufficiently informed to do so). Plausible-sounding half-truths are their stock in trade. You don’t need to be right so long as you present a narrative convincing enough that people who want to believe it can. It is all a bit of an inside joke, which perhaps explains the PM’s involuntary smirk whenever he is stretching the truth in a TV interview. Even if it is not true or you don’t believe it, enough people will and, if not, in a few weeks it will all be forgotten anyway. It’s all pretend, just so much smoke and mirrors. We do not see the man behind the curtain or the man who pays him.

The ethic of public service has all but disappeared from UK politics and seems to be positively frowned upon by the current administration, which operates in plain sight as something akin to an organized crime group, offering access and influence in exchange for cash and circumventing procurement rules to hand massive contracts to connected firms charging over the odds for products they have no experience of making (and often fail to deliver), contemptuous of the checks and balances intended to keep democracy secure. Loyalty to one another trumps principle and even the rule of law. All of which, of course, creates perfect conditions in which the creeping hand of corruption and malign foreign influence can do its work and unspoken outcomes can be pursued and achieved. The dirty Russian money on which the Conservative Party has come to depend is just another source of cash offered in exchange for access and influence. It’s all become so normal. Little wonder Mr Johnson and his colleagues are more comfortable criticising Europe’s dependence on Russian gas than dealing with their own lack of due diligence in combatting the threat from Russia. The Intelligence and Security Committee’s heavily delayed report on allegations of Russian interference in British politics, published in summary form in July 2020 (the most ‘sensitive’ material was withheld) though it was completed in March 2019, found that Russian interference in the British economy and politics had become ‘commonplace’ and that the UK government had ‘actively avoided’ investigating evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum. Not only did the UK offer ‘ideal mechanisms by which illicit finance could be recycled through … the London “laundromat”’, Russian money ‘was also invested in extending patronage and building influence across a wide sphere of the British establishment – PR firms, charities, political interests, academia and cultural institutions’, contributing to ‘reputation laundering’, through, for example, donations to institutions such as private schools or universities and the purchase of football teams. The extent of the integration of oligarchs with close links to Putin into the UK business and social scene was such that ‘any measures now being taken by the government are not preventive but rather constitute damage limitation’. The report was a long-overdue opportunity to undertake a thorough audit of Russian influence and corruption in the UK and to begin to root it out. It was not taken. The government preferred not to ask the hard questions. The media also looked away. It was easier to sweep it all under the carpet.

The government’s failure to protect British democracy from foreign interference would be a resigning matter – and perhaps a criminal one – in almost any other moment of history. Not now. Business continued as usual. The donations continued to flood the coffers of the Conservative Party, despite everyone knowing what they were buying. A few months later, in defiance of the findings of the Intelligence and Security Committee and against security advice, Johnson made Evgeny Lebedev, the son of oligarch and former KGB officer Alexander Lebedev, a life peer, with a role in making British laws (remarkably, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab attempted to justify this by saying that he had not yet turned up to take his seat!). It’s almost as though the PM wants us to know that it doesn’t matter what we think of him or his actions. As Foreign Secretary in 2017 Johnson famously ditched his security detail following a NATO summit to attend a party at an Italian villa hosted by Lebedev junior and attended by Lebedev senior. From a moral point of view, it’s as though nothing matters any more. Whatever you can get away with is fine, simply because you can get away with it. Johnson’s disregard for public opinion is dismaying. It’s so extraordinarily brazen it is difficult to make sense of it. But that is typical of how we tend to experience politics today: as a kind of irreducible complexity in which none of our old tools of making sense works anymore. It’s disorienting, and intentionally so. It inclines us to despair or indifference and makes us susceptible to authoritarian interventions at home and to malign influence from abroad. It is exactly what Putin would want. Johnson too.

For people like Putin, democratic values carry no weight. From his early days in the KGB in Dresden, he has exercised brute force with impunity and operated politically in a way that both involved and was indistinguishable from the activities of organised crime. Catherine Belton has described how, during the break-up of the Soviet Union, members the fading Community Party colluded with the KGB to create an ‘invisible economy’ through ‘friendly’ companies around the world, including in the West, ensuring they took their ill-gotten wealth with them – ‘the beginning of the looting of the Soviet state’. The handover of state assets to a handful of men – the oligarchs – under Yeltsin was applauded and actively supported by the West, despite the awful consequences for the Russian people. Evidently, Putin was watching closely. Once he and his associates achieved power, they used it to enrich themselves, siphoning many billions out of the Russian economy and laundering and investing it in the West, particularly in London. This wealth bought influence in the West, but it also gave Putin the means to corrupt institutions and individuals, using techniques perfected by the KGB (Belton calls it ‘KGB capitalism’). He has targeted the UK state, partly, of course, for the country’s strategic significance, but also, I suppose, because London already had in place a financial sector dedicated to servicing the ultra-rich and helping them hide their money, while a legal system set up to favour wealthy litigants (and to be largely inaccessible to those without enormous wealth) enables oligarchs and other wealthy people to ‘intimidate and destroy’ journalists. Beyond this, a divided and polarising political system and an education system which routinely fails most of the people who pass through it and actively discourages critical thinking make Britain especially vulnerable to foreign influence. The private school system and the culture of acquiescence to power and wealth also make Britain attractive to the super rich. Britain is a wonderful place to live for those with the deepest pockets.

The kleptocrats inhabit a different world, one largely invisible to the rest of us and which they believe they own. It is a world without borders, of private schools and private universities, of private jets and private islands, of holiday destinations you have never heard of; a world where money equates to status, and anything can be bought. London is critical to this secret world because it is the global centre of special services for the rich, which perhaps also explains why being a politician in Britain can be a particularly lucrative business. Politicians are befriended, given a glimpse behind the curtain. It isn’t just the oddly well-remunerated special directorships, it’s the free holidays in secret places familiar only to the super rich, the elite parties, the dizzying proximity to real power and staggering excess. In a world in which status attaches to money rather than rank or qualification, this stuff really matters and almost everyone is susceptible to it. It is more than just a perk of the job. For some, I suspect, it is their overriding reason for being in politics. For the kleptocrats and oligarchs, it is a means of gaining influence and access and compromising national politics and politicians. These cosy little ‘friendships’ come with a price. For some of the more biddable beneficiaries of kleptocratic generosity, it does not matter. They are united with their benefactors through a shared culture of amoral greed and absence of scruple. But for ordinary people, the consequences are dreadful. It means a further debasement of democracy and democratic institutions, deepening inequality and worsening work conditions, and the further degradation of the environment for the enrichment of a few already obscenely rich individuals. It means more hopelessness, more numbing indifference, and a more authoritarian future.

Change is a remote prospect. No political party is interested in challenging the power of the kleptocrats – and Britain appears to be too far gone to properly unravel all the threads that lead to Putin and his asset holders, the so-called oligarchs. We seem to be headed towards something akin to feudalism – Feudalism 2.0, you might call it – where the world belongs to a small group of super-wealthy kleptocrats who operate across borders and above the law, who can buy not only citizenship but politicians and their parties, all without a shred of democratic accountability or control. The rest of us are theirs to buy and sell, working for a diminishing share of global wealth, for whatever allowance they deem appropriate, often ladened with debt and dulled by distraction. It remains to be seen how serious the UK government is about rooting out Russian influence and dirty money. Where this leaves the British economy, which has come to depend on foreign investment, is another live question. If we are serious, we need not only to find the bad apples but to address the culture that brought them to London in the first place, as well as the economic needs they answer. I see little evidence of an appetite for such change. Too many of those in power themselves benefit from the same moral and legal laxity that brought the oligarchs here in the first place. And while there is no doubt that people are generally repulsed by the stories of corruption and complicity, it is unlikely that they have either the motivation or resources to change things. People are too preoccupied with amassing crumbs from the table to demand a place at the table or an equal say in how things are run or done. We need to make democracy meaningful again. But we can only do that if people are sufficiently engaged or concerned at its absence to demand it for themselves. Too few people are and decades of neglect of citizenship and civic purpose in education have left us ill-equipped to do so – or to understand why this matters. With the planet teetering on the edge of uninhabitability, for most of us, at least, we must ask ourselves whether we are content to live in a world run by kleptocrats for kleptocrats, or whether we want something better: a sustainable future that belongs to everyone.

A bridge between imagination and reality

At the start of Patrick Keiller’s 1997 cinematic investigation of the ‘problem of England’, Robinson in Space, the unnamed narrator (voiced by Paul Scofield), sometime companion and former lover of the eponymous Robinson, quotes at length from Raoul Vaneigem’s 1967 situationist classic, The Revolution of Everyday Life:

Reality, as it evolves, sweeps me with it. I’m struck by everything and, though not everything strikes me in the same way, I am always struck by the same basic contradiction: although I can always see how beautiful anything could be, if only I could change it, in practically every case there is nothing I can really do. Everything is changed into something else in my imagination, then the dead weight of things changes it back into what it was in the first place. A bridge between imagination and reality must be built.

Keiller’s film deals with exclusion, neglect, decline and inattention, in the context of England’s changing geographical, political and intellectual landscape. He sifts carefully through the debris of Thatcherite neoliberalism and English industrial decline for signs and signals of the lost and salvageable, for new shoots and recovered memories. While Robinson, the narrator suggests, can transform the fragments he encounters into something of value and meaning, for a time at least, the effort is hard to sustain. It is clear by the end of the film that the imaginative effort to see the world in utopian terms comes at a cost for Robinson, whose mental health has begun to deteriorate.

Keiller’s film is as much a critique of power as it is an elegy for things lost. He describes the two worlds of British economic life: the hidden world of astonishing privilege and private wealth and the poverty and hopelessness of left-behind classes and communities. It is the contrast between the extraordinary wealth in the country – contrary to appearances, Keiller finds the economy to be thriving – and the extreme desolation of the places he encounters that Robinson is, finally, unable to reconcile, and which he comes to see is only maintained through the oppressive and unjust use of power. It is this recognition, the film implies, that leads to Robinson’s sudden decline (and disappearance). A quarter of a century after the film was made, Britain remains a wonderful place to live if you are born into wealth – not so much for everyone else, and for the millions locked into poverty and disaffection, it is unremittingly, suffocatingly awful.

Vaneigem also saw this unjust use of power, albeit in a different context. Like Keiller, he was troubled by the dominance of consumer society and its tendency to alienate and negate. Vaneigem understood society under the star of consumerism as beset by triviality and inauthenticity, with docility secured not by ‘priestly magic’ but by ‘a mass of minor hypnoses: news, culture, town-planning, publicity, mechanisms of conditioning and suggestion in the service of any order, established or to come’. The slow-moving kaleidoscope of images we consume in our day-to-day lives induces passivity, mediating our relationship with the world, while routine – the ‘necessity to produce’ that drags us out of bed each day and is the last thing we think about before we go to sleep, encouraging submission, and a tolerance of boredom, repetition and futility – dulls our senses and stifles our creative potential as human beings. Of course, like Robinson and Vaneigem, we can easily see how things might be different or better, but, in reality, there seems to be nothing we can really do. Our dreams are no more real or realizable than those of the sleepers of the Matrix, the reality of our lives no less a form of slavery than theirs. Hence, the necessity to bridge imagination and reality.

This idea has resonated with me for years, and is more critical, it seems to me, than ever. No society has had such ‘contempt for life’, as Vaneigem puts it, as ours. No society has needed more urgently to build a bridge from imagination to reality, yet no society has found it harder to see how things can be different or better. We know where we want to get to but there is no practicable route or roadmap. There is desire, but no hope. Meanwhile, we continue to toil, frequently in work in which we do not believe, underpaid and loaded down by debt, distracted by the shining stars of the internet and social media, stupefied and exhausted, anxious and depressed, bombarded with empty promises and told every kind of falsehood necessary to keep us in line, while, all the time, our democratic rights and freedoms are being quietly curtailed. While once the prospect of salvation and a happy afterlife kept our hands on the plough and the shovel, now it is distraction and the promise that things will get better (Brexit! Levelling up! Liz Truss!?) that makes the present bearable. Whereas in the industrial age, sheer exhaustion was the greatest counter to the prospect of revolution, now it is the infantilization of popular culture and social media. If that doesn’t work, there’s always the police. It’s all so meagre, all so insufficient. It’s shit, to be frank.

In education, this submersion of the human is visible in the shift away from what used to be called a ‘liberal’ education towards a human-capital approach that sees people not as human beings but as possessors of productive capacity, mere cogs oiled by education and training. To an increasing degree, working class people can expect their education to aim no higher than to prepare them to work or for a job. Instead of participation in society, they can expect participation in work, and then of a strictly limited kind. Their potential as citizens, activists, philosophers, writers, creators, artists, musicians, as cultural producers of one sort or another, is all but ignored. The arts and humanities have been marginalized, with funding and emphasis directed instead to basic skills and employability, as though employment were the only measure of human satisfaction. Increasingly, the higher study of history, literature, politics and languages is the preserve of the already privileged, people who, in many cases, emerge from university having only encountered working people though service industries such as hospitality and retail – usually the very same people with whom we foolishly entrust the leadership of the country.

For the rest, the anxiety and pressure of learning for work begins almost immediately. Instead of learning through play and creativity, children are thrust into an environment of high-stakes testing where creativity and difference of outlook are perceived as problems, to be dealt with either by discipline or by medication. Conformity to the task is everything and the less you understand the task and its usefulness, the more valuable the lesson. The sooner you get used to doing things for reasons that are opaque at best, and, for all you know, entirely nonsensical, the better. While education should foster creativity, engagement and critical thinking, if its aim is truly to realise human potential, the system we have could not run more counter to this if it had been designed to do so. And, in a sense, of course, it has been.

The sooner we realise that inequality, oppression and the reproduction of privilege are not bugs in the system but core features, the sooner we will be able to move past it, consigning these nasty, pernicious old orthodoxies to the dustbin of history. Anxiety, conformity, disillusion and disengagement are the main outputs of our education system, at least as far as the disadvantaged majority are concerned. Failure is its core product, the diploma with which most of us emerge from formal schooling. Where social mobility exists, it can be seen as no more than a blip, a tolerable exception within a broader system which very effectively thwarts the hopes and ambitions of most of the human beings who pass through it. While the children of the wealthy get numerous opportunities to fail, working class children are encouraged to think of every hurdle as potentially fatal to their life ambition, and so, by and large, they are (of course, that’s how they are designed). And while adult education traditionally offered working class people a second chance at education, such opportunities have been systematically dismantled over the past decades. It is hard now to recall that, until relatively recently, the UK was regarded around the world as an exemplar of good, innovative practice in this field, and rightly so.

For all of this, the grip of the old orthodoxies and the tired old politics that supports them is as strong as ever. We remain in thrall to a system that promises change and hope in spades but works in all sorts of ways to prevent such things happening. Even now, with the climate emergency threatening irreversible devastation to life on the planet and the destruction of whole communities, particularly in poorer parts of the world, political leaders are unable to take the actions required to make a difference, and public pressure for them to change tack is weak. And while it seemed for a time that the financial crisis of 2008 might prompt a reimagining of capitalism (perhaps even its end as we know it), business as usual reasserted itself almost immediately. Part of the problem is that we seem to have stopped thinking of these issues in moral terms. We have become creatures of feeling. Moral issues such as the nature or work or inequality have been reconstrued as essentially emotional issues: we need to become more resilient, to cope better with the anxiety caused by debt, overwork, the gap between earnings and the cost of living, even the impacts of climate change. We are encouraged to find solutions within ourselves for issues that are really – and obviously – structural. We have pathologized the psychological effects of poverty and injustice. Truth is another casualty. Where once (some) journalists prided themselves on the pursuit of truth, it is now enough simply to present one person’s feelings alongside another’s and leave readers/viewers to decide who to believe. Once truth and morality are out of the picture, it really is just a matter of how we feel.

Our moral solipsism is a major obstacle when it comes to building a bridge between the world we imagine and the world in which we live. The development of social media has deepened our myopic concern with the self while reinforcing both our prejudices and our desperate, narcissistic neediness for approval of one sort of another. We may desire disruption and challenge, but all too often we get the pureed slop of reheated ideas, served up by algorithms designed to monetize what used to be our private worlds. The challenge we have with regard to social media, which is also the challenge the situationists felt they had in confronting consumer culture, is how to turn these regimented, rule-governed intellectually restrictive spaces into spaces of genuine agency and creativity. We face the same challenge with regard to civic, political and educational spaces – they all need to be reinvented with the human being at the centre. I worry though that it is too late. The neoliberal experiment has brought us to the point of environmental collapse. The educational tools people require to think critically about events and to change them have been restricted to those who need them the least, while the anxiety of modern life – the debts, the unending, unnecessary work, the hunger for recognition in a world of reflective surfaces – makes it difficult, if not impossible, to think beyond the now in any serious way. I suspect that putting people’s hands back on the levers of change will prove much more difficult than prising them off, as was so successfully done in the wake of the protests and uprisings of the late 1960s.

But, of course, we must try. We must resist political quietism. There is perhaps hope that the new realism about the climate crisis will displace the old realism of the necessity of constant economic growth, and that possibilism of the heart can overcome pessimism of the intellect. For those of us who work in education, it is critical that we re-establish the connection between our work and the social purpose of education. Part of the problem with advocacy for adult education has been its tendency to see the world in pieces, to perfect our own bit of the jigsaw and not worry about the other pieces or the picture they make when put together. Is it defensible still to content ourselves with supporting government to ameliorate the worst educational consequences of other aspects of policy? Aren’t we also enabling them? We should remove the blinkers that allow us to work with government and keep a clean conscience (not that they ever did). We need to see the connections the government does not. We need an education that reengages us with our direct lived experience of the world, not an infantile fantasy of connection. We need to relearn the ethics of care in a way that includes but also transcends the human. Everything depends on us and our capacity to go beyond reaction to offer something new and different. We cannot rely on governments or the carbon-powered super rich to repair climate damage and create a fairer, more equal society, where human rights are respected and our responsibilities to the planet and one another are fully recognised. We should not expect an alternative to our current politics to spontaneously emerge. We need a revolution of everyday life – a creative, ground-up reconstituting of the relationship between human beings and work, politics, technology and the planet. In dark times, even a small spark can light a path. The point is not to explain capitalism (or make it work better), but to overturn it. My hope for 2022 is that it will be the year when, to again quote Vaneigem, ‘the analysts are in the streets’.

Planes, trains and automatic facial recognition technology

A couple of weeks ago, I alighted a train in Helsinki’s central railway station. There were no manual or automated ticket checks, no queues to leave the platform. When I arrived back home to Hamburg a few days later, I bought a single-journey ticket from the machine at the airport and took a train home. There were no barriers and no ticket checks on the train or at my home station. I couldn’t help but contrast this with the experience of travelling in the UK: the multiplicity of different ticket types, fees and services and the poor articulation between them, the constant checks and fines for those who have (often unknowingly) bought the wrong ticket or travelled at the wrong time (the ever-expanding ‘peak’ period), the ticket barriers which, half the time, don’t recognize your ticket, the queues to get on or off the platform, the absurd prices and failing, overcrowded services. My heart rate goes up just thinking about it!

As a once-frequent commuter in the UK, I sometimes found myself wondering how the installation and maintenance of this expensive system of automated checks and scrutiny could be saving the rail companies money given what I imagined was the relatively sporadic incidence of ticket fraud by people who, for the most part, could be effectively deterred by the prospect of an occasional random on-train inspection. Perhaps it is cost-effective; certainly the (for many people) prohibitively expensive ticket prices in the UK mean there is a potential fortune to recoup on every service, as well as an increased incentive to fare-dodge. However, I started to suspect that the main purpose of the system was not to recoup lost profits but to uphold and contribute to the culture of surveillance and fearfulness that has come to pervade many aspects of British life. It reflects our tendency in Britain to make policy with the small minority of system-abusers in mind, rather than the vast majority of compliant service-users, tipping the lance of freedom towards sometimes-imaginary adversaries. Instead of enjoying what freedom we have, and trying to enlarge its scope, we live in constant fear of it being taken away, or, perhaps more accurately, of somebody who isn’t entitled to it enjoying it, and support policy that assuages our often not very well-founded or misdirected anxieties. This, it seems, is the highly ironic, almost comical, price we have decided to pay for our freedoms.

Anxiety is the state in which most people now live out their lives, the seemingly natural, permanent condition of life in Britain in the twenty-first century. It can be seen in all spheres of life. Our jobs are less secure, employment often short-term and subject to changing hours and pay and even sudden cancellation. Rights and conditions at work have deteriorated and look set to worsen further, as employers reap the Brexit ‘dividend’ of reduced ‘red tape’ (Tory-speak for workers’ rights). Workers must be ready at any time and be prepared to ditch any other commitments they may have at a moment’s notice. And the consequences of failing to respond appropriately can be enormous. Most people live a day at a time, just getting by, pay cheque by pay cheque, never more than a few weeks away from potential financial disaster. They are likely to be living under the burden of substantial debt, paying exorbitant rents and mortgages, meaning that the results of being out of work, of stepping off the treadmill for just a short period, can be catastrophic, personally as well as professionally. The distances between the rungs on the socio-economic ladder mean that the cost of falling down one or two steps is enormous. For the millions of people in Britain living close to or below the poverty line, the stress around putting food on the table and keeping a roof over your head is like a kind of ubiquitous white noise, filling every aspect of your life, jamming every other signal, stopping you thinking about anything else.

Relief is hard to come by. There are fewer spaces to retreat from the pressure of work and the need to secure a wage. Wherever you look, the boundaries between work and home life are becoming more porous. Work is only ever a click of the mouse or a stroke of the thumb away. An alert pops up on your smart phone when your boss wants something from you, whether you are at work or not. The increased use of Zoom and Microsoft Teams during the pandemic has brought workplace scrutiny and surveillance into the home, raising questions about privacy and data collection. Our ‘social’ lives are, to a degree, similarly driven by anxiety and the need for technology-mediated ‘likes’ and ‘friends’. The technologies supposed to connect us in fact drive us further apart, leading us to live more atomized, insular lives, while the logic of algorithms manipulates our experience for others’ private gain, ensuring that we are fed a personalized version of reality based on our own prejudices and purchase histories, where we are no more than tiny cogs in a machine through which money is constantly circulated, for reasons long since forgotten. Our worlds are being reshaped by computers in ways that are not transparent, at the behest of people who are not democratically accountable. Our experience of social media feels increasingly like repeatedly looking for treasure in the same barren, impoverished place, a triumph of hope – or perhaps desperation – over experience. Some studies have linked heavy social media use with depressive symptoms and anxiety about status, an unsurprising outcome of a compulsive, addictive resource that erodes privacy, fosters emotional neediness and disconnects us from our (real) lives and families.

However, for all of this, nowhere are the culture and politics of anxiety more in evidence than in education. The past decades have seen an increase both in the volume and frequency of testing and in the intensity of scrutiny in education. State schools and colleges are subject to overbearing, punitive accountability regimes, which have resulted in closed, control-oriented leadership and demoralized, overloaded staff whose workload has been distorted and increased by the pursuit of Ofsted grades. Not surprisingly, this high-stakes environment, in which both teachers and students find themselves under constant scrutiny and pressure, has resulted in a greater emphasis on teaching to the test, at the expense of the more rounded development of students. A culture of constant testing and evaluation has almost entirely usurped the place of play, creativity and exploration in the curriculum. School and college curricula, and the priorities of education policy-makers, have been transformed beyond recognition, particularly in the non-elite, state education sector, where students are fed a diet of workplace preparation and training, and the wider, humanistic values of education are almost forgotten. This has come to seem very normal – our mouths, stuffed full with the language of league tables, grades, markets and competition, seem unable to articulate it – but it is worth recalling that the marginalization of the public value and wider social and civic purpose of education is relatively new (just look at education reports prior to and including Russell). It sends the message that those unable to buy privilege can expect to live their lives on other people’s terms, in a world owned and imagined by people they will never know, inconsequential parts of a system they can only partly see, don’t understand and will never have a chance to change.

In such a world, you must never forget your place, your smallness, your utter nakedness and constant exposure to scrutiny. I was struck by a report in the FT on the introduction of facial recognition technology in school canteens in schools in North Ayrshire. The technology was to be used to take payments for school lunches by scanning the faces of pupils. The scheme, which has since been paused after concerns were raised about privacy, data protection and parental consent, was to be rolled out in nine schools initially, with more to follow. The justification for this intrusive use of technology was typically fluffy and plausible: the use of technology would speed up the lunch queues and make them more Covid-secure. However, whatever the motivation of the council or the company responsible for delivering the scheme, it has wholly predictable and deeply troubling negative consequences in terms of privacy and data use. While the council claimed 97 per cent consent from parents and children, it is not clear that parents gave consent to the storage of their children’s ‘faceprints’ or how much they understood about the broader implications of the use of this technology in schools. Nor, indeed, is it obvious that the planned wider use of this technology in the UK would be cheaper than, say, offering a free lunch to all school children, obviating the need for such authoritarian-style checks. While the mood music is all about service improvement, the most significant outcome of such schemes, perhaps not intended but all too predictable, is to sensitize children to surveillance and intrusion by government and the private sector, and to encourage them, in the words of Silkie Carlo, the director of Big Brother Watch, quoted in the Guardian, to give their personal data away ‘on a whim’ and attach little or no value to their own personal and bodily privacy.

These are not accidental side effects but well-understood outcomes of policies, which are either the undisclosed aims of policy or are considered a ‘price worth paying’ for other policy aims, such as faster-moving lunch queues or reduced fare dodging. In education, it is frequently ‘choice’ that is held up as the justification for all kinds of divisive and regressive policy-making, including the defunding of state schools and the promotion of educational selection. Who would be against choice? It sounds so positive and empowering. But it is almost always the case that policies promoted in these terms favour those with the money to choose, middle-class families who can buy their way into key catchment areas or in some other way play the system to their offspring’s advantage. For poorer families, it usually means money and resources being stripped from the schools to which they send their kids, and redistributed towards the selective education of their better-off peers (as I write, the Chancellor has just announced increasing per pupil spending in English state schools to 2010 levels!). It means more anxiety, more self-loathing, more guilt – who, after all, would choose to send their kids to a ‘bog-standard’ school? Anxiety, depression and self-hatred form the dark underbelly of the choice agenda pushed for many decades by the Conservatives. Markets and competition – the loaded trappings of Britain’s pretend meritocracy – support the sectors, institutions and individuals with the resources to compete and the in-built advantage of starting at or near the top. For those who lack these resources, the intended unintended consequences of policy are fear, anxiety and hopelessness. None of this, we should remember, is natural or inevitable. It did not arise spontaneously but has been fostered, carefully and deliberately, over the past few decades.

The outcomes are plain to see. We are in the midst of a mental health crisis. Depression, anxiety and other emotional problems are now normal among young people. We are on the road to becoming a surveillance state (if we are not there already), prepared to use children as guinea pigs in the further erosion of privacy. Wherever you look, people lead lives of quiet desperation. We have become accustomed to hopelessness. Political opposition has faded away, blunted by the dismantling of class-based politics and union solidarity and the emergence of class-blind identity politics. Spaces, including educational spaces, in which people can come together to discuss the future of their communities and societies, have been disappearing as a dismaying rate. The anxiety to which we have become habituated makes it difficult to imagine anything different or better. Research suggests that anxiety undermines our ability to think clearly and make good decisions; it decreases external agency and political participation, and increases risk aversion. It also makes us more compliant and less willing to stand up for ourselves or shake things up. Policy solutions, such as they are, focus on the symptoms not the cause. We are encouraged to become more resilient or otherwise to adapt to the systemic causes of emotional and psychological distress, rather than challenge them. Children are encouraged to learn to cope with the negative outputs of our broken, inequitable education system. Adults are medicated to assuage their understandable feelings of despair and hopelessness – whatever gets you back on the shop floor. At the same time, the agenda of choice and social mobility, the fake news of meritocracy and equality of opportunity, encourage us to blame ourselves for where we happened to have landed in life. Politics has become focused on managing the outcomes of fear and anxiety, rather than addressing the causes. To change, we have to stop accepting the abnormal as normal, the intolerable as tolerable, and recognize systemic issues for what they are, and not treat them as private problems. We have to remember that it wasn’t always like this – there was a time when children were not sad, anxious, frightened, depressed, despairing, helpless and hopeless – that things changed once and can change again.

Meditations on an emergency

The devastation caused by floods and fire this summer is a wake-up call with regard not only to climate change, but to lifelong learning too.

The floods that devastated parts of Asia and central Europe and the wildfires that reshaped the landscape in Greece and North America this summer supplied what are sure to become some of the defining images of our time. This year will be remembered as the one in which wealthy nations came face to face with the reality of climate change. As Malu Dreyer, the Minister-President of Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany, noted of the floods in her state, climate change is ‘not abstract any more. We are experiencing it up close and painfully’. There are no longer any safe places, no exemptions for the privileged.

This sobering picture was confirmed by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s new report on the climate emergency, which was published on 9 August 2021. The IPCC Report – the definitive and uniquely authoritative word on the physical causes of global warming – found it ‘unequivocal’ that human activity was the cause of climate change, making extreme climate events, including heatwaves, heavy rainfall, and drought both more frequent and more severe.  Already, every region in the world was experiencing some combination of rising temperatures, forest fires, flood or drought, the Report said. Only ‘strong, rapid, and sustained’ reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and attaining net zero CO2 emissions in this decade, will prevent further climate breakdown and limit global warming to 1.5 °C. Without it, larger scale, extreme weather events such as floods and heatwaves would become more common, and human life on the planet would become more precarious.

However, the IPCC report is not a counsel of despair. Although we are uncomfortably late in acting, and many of the changes we are seeing are ‘irreversible’, it is not yet too late, and there is still much we can do, and much we can save. As Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, noted at the report’s launch, ‘the power is in our hands at this point’, and there is an onus on every business leader, politician and policymaker ‘to consider how to be a contributor’.  The problems caused by climate change can be mitigated, if not solved, but only through concerted, intersectoral action everywhere, on every front, in every community, wherever we live in the world. The IPCC report represents an unchallengeable mandate for far-reaching change in every aspect of the way in which we live, including, quite crucially, in education.

This is what makes the challenge so daunting. We are used to experiencing the world as unsolvable. As Fredric Jameson observed, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. While systems of power are more nebulous and harder to challenge than before, it is also the case that we have forgotten that change can and does happen; and that collective action can make other worlds possible. It is important that we believe this. The old, dying orthodoxy of endless economic growth and limitless consumption will take all of us with it, unless we can find a new language of hope, founded on planetary sustainability, collective action, and a commitment to equitable and inclusive futures.

Education has an important role to play in this, not just in response to change, but as a driver of it. This is a challenge to the global education community, at every level. We cannot wait for change to arrive, but must, instead, in all of our practice, strive to embody the sort of change we recognize as essential in wider society. Among other things, this means reframing our understanding of lifelong learning, and reviving some old, now unorthodox and unfashionable, understandings of the term, making them meaningful to a new generation of people facing new, unprecedented challenges.

Gert Biesta wrote some 15 years ago that lifelong learning had come to be understood ‘in terms of the formation of human capital and as an investment in economic development’, a transformation felt at both the level of policy and the level of the learner and learning provider. If anything, in the years since, this trend has become more established, more seemingly permanent. Learning for purposes other than work is, by comparison, more marginalized than ever. It is under pressure everywhere. Yet, despite the predominance of what Biesta terms the ‘learning economy’, it is increasingly evident that we need something else: lifelong learning that prepares us to be not only good and efficient workers, but also thoughtful, active citizens, adaptable and resilient, yet creative, cooperative, and imaginative enough to shape new futures based on collective thought and action and a desire for social and environmental justice.

Biesta’s call for us to reclaim ‘those forms of collective learning – learning with others and from otherness and difference – which are linked to empowerment, collective action and social change, and to the translation of our private troubles into collective and shared concerns’, is more pertinent and urgent than ever. The horrific images from China, Germany, Greece, Austria and other places, and the astonishing heatwaves in North America, which saw new record temperatures four or five degrees higher than the previous ones, are a wake-up call, with regard not only to climate change and the prevailing economic model driving it, but to education too. They tell us that business as usual is no longer an option. We need to create a new normal based around the idea of sustainable living, and to realize the potential of lifelong learning to empower people to make the change we need.

While we all have an obligation to be mindful of our environment and ethical in our behaviour in the different aspects of our lives, there is, I believe, a special obligation on those of us who work and learn in education to highlight the wider value of lifelong learning and foster its democratic function. Education that empowers and enables, that connects and inspires, and, in the best traditions of adult education, foregrounds dialogue and co-production of knowledge, is more necessary than ever.

What might this mean in practice? At the level of the learner, it might mean becoming a learner-activist, championing environmental concerns at school or college, and taking what you learn into your community. For teachers, it could mean embodying democratic practice and the principle of co-production of knowledge in your teaching; and building networks of mutual support. At the level of local and national government, it may mean rebalancing the dimensions of education and lifelong learning and recognizing that, in some key respects, the system is broken, its resistance to change indicative not of health or robustness but of dysfunction. At the level of the international education community, so critical in all of this, it must mean renewing the education discourse in a way that makes change thinkable and hope possible.

Of course, the kind of cooperation that is required to respond to the climate crisis is unprecedented, but so too is the emergency. It is on an entirely different scale to every other challenge we face, the pandemic included. We cannot know if we will be successful or anticipate what will emerge from our response to the crisis. But by acting as though another world is possible, we optimize our chances of getting there. There is no chance at all if we don’t.

The post is an updated version of a blog post first published on Only Connect, UIL’s blog, and also draws on my introduction to the August 2021 issue of IRE. It was first published in this form in the PIMA Bulletin No. 38 (Sept. 2021). It is reproduced here with permission.

Freire, interrupted

Paulo Freire, the Brazilian philosopher of education and proponent of critical pedagogy, was born on this day, 19 September, 100 years ago. He published his most famous book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in Portuguese in 1968, at a moment of acute hope and possibility, politically and culturally, and in English in 1970, by which time that hope had begun to leech away.

Interest in his ideas has waxed and waned in the subsequent decades. When I began working in the adult education sector in 2002, he was still seen as a relevant figure, even a revered one, but, for all practical purposes, he was, to most, a teacher from the past, an inspiration perhaps but not a guide to the problems of the present.

This is not all that surprising. The decades that followed the publication of Pedagogy of the Oppressed brought seismic change in education, as they did in the rest of society. The ‘banking’ model of education – that idea that teachers deposit knowledge into the heads of their students, a kind of one-way information dump – that Freire critiqued so effectively became more prevalent, as education systems came to focus more narrowly on teaching to the test and preparation for work or, more narrowly, a job.

These changes of course reflected wider systemic changes in society, which were, in large part, a response to the promise of the late 1960s. Societies became more individualized and divided, inequalities grew exponentially, within and between countries, and places and spaces in which collective action or collaborative thinking was possible began to dwindle in number and importance. Naturally enough, in education, markets were promoted, competition became more prevalent, and goals and purposes narrowed, as governments came to see education as a private investment linked to economic function, and lost sight of its public value.

While these changes were not, by any means, limited to adult education, change in adult education, as is often the case, can serve as a kind of barometer of change elsewhere, as it is the part of the education system politicians find easiest to tamper with, cut or eliminate altogether, the canary in the educational mine, if you like. Adult education for purposes other than work or employment began to disappear. There was greater focus on preparing people for work, and far less on the development of critical thinking, creativity or active citizenship. The most recent Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE 4) found education for citizenship to be grossly neglected in comparison with basic skills or vocational education. And while critical adult education which exemplifies Freire’s ideas about dialogue and solution-posing, has survived, it has done so in spite rather than because of the actions of governments.

Despite these trends, the past decade has seen a steady increase in interest in Freire’s work. Education researchers have engaged with him anew, some returning to his work, others finding him for the first time, and this has been reflected in the growing number of conferences and special issues of academic journals dedicated to his thought. Teachers, activists and practitioner-researchers also appear to be looking to his work for ideas and inspiration. What explains this apparent resurgence of interest? I would propose three important factors, offered not as an exhaustive list, but, in the Freirean spirit, as a stimulus to further reflection on the contemporary relevance and applicability of his ideas.

First, the world has changed and the challenges we face are new and acute. These include the current pandemic, but the most pressing is the climate emergency, which is now reshaping the planet, and driving irreversible change in the conditions in which we live in every part of the world. Such challenges cannot be met with more of the same. We need to find ways to live with and as part of the natural environment and not see it any longer as a bottomless resource for our economic advancement and gratification. Such a radical shift in how we live and see the world requires education that does more than simply reinforce the status quo. The high-stakes, rote-learning model of education is no longer fit for purpose. We need critical and creative citizens capable of thinking and acting collectively and an education system that promotes this. As Freire explains, teaching is a political event. There is no neutral route – only a choice between authoritarian approaches that seek to integrate students into the prevailing system, or what Freire terms the ‘practice of freedom’, though which people engage critically with the world around them and try to change it. All teaching takes place in the space between what is and what could be.

Second, wherever we look today, the institutions and values of democracy are under attack. The rise of populism has led to a greater spread of disinformation, enabled by technology and an increasingly polarized politics.  At the same time, there are fewer places in which to practice democracy, including in classrooms. The day-to-day anxiety most of us feel about paying the bills and managing our debts, is replicated in schools, where cultures of high-stakes testing produce environments unconducive to creative or critical thought. Freire recognized that education, at every level, was critical in raising the consciousness of learners, and giving them a means to engage critically with reality.  What he described as ‘conscientization’, the process whereby individual agency is realized through collective engagement with the world, is integral to promoting democracy and counteracting authoritarian ideology. Only by rooting educational practice in the reality of people’s lives, finding an appropriate language in which to express the issues people face, and exemplifying democratic practice in the way in which we critically engage with these issues, can we make education that is truly ‘liberatory’.

Third, societies have become fragmented and atomizing places in which to live. We lead increasingly disconnected lives, while the technologies that promise to connect us confirm our prejudices and drive us further apart. Quiet despair is the norm for many people who feel constrained and overburdened and see no way in which to make things better for themselves, their families and communities. The hope of something better is probably the most important thing education can offer. It is what makes social change possible. Yet, too often, education does no more than reproduce patterns of disadvantage. Freire’s recognition that while change is difficult it is not impossible is important, particularly in societies in which we have grown used to living with hopelessness. His understanding that we realize ourselves through collective action is critical too. Whether we acknowledge it or not, all education takes place in a contested, political space in which the future is endlessly available to be disrupted, interrupted and remade. There is an urgent need, recognized by the Futures of Education initiative, to reframe education in terms of collective action and social change, which speaks directly to Freire and more broadly to the adult education tradition.

These are some of the reasons we continue to read Freire. The centenary of his birth is an opportunity to reconnect with his thought and celebrate it. But I hope it can also be a catalyst for a more extended, critical engagement with his ideas and their relevance to the problems we face today. There remains much here for those who see education as, above all, a vehicle for creating a fairer, more equal and humane world.

Instead of building resilience, why not the hope of something better?

Resilience, popularly understood as the capacity to ‘bounce back’ from adverse circumstances, seems to be everywhere right now. Work is commissioned on how to promote it, conferences are convened to debate it (ostensibly, at least), think tanks and international organisations highlight its importance in ‘building back better’, and policy-makers seek ways to foster it through education, particularly in schools but increasingly in adult education. Things have been bad, we are told, and are unlikely to improve much. In fact, it is probable that things will get worse, perhaps much worse. We need to be strong. We need to keep going, in spite of it all – for while we may not be able to control the fast-changing, messed-up reality around us, we can at least control how we feel about and react to it.

In a way, it is difficult to argue against this, which, I suppose, helps explain the current pervasiveness of the language of resilience. It has considerable surface plausibility. Life is unpredictable and precarious, and people should be prepared for it. It stands to reason that if we can increase people’s capacity to cope and mitigate the inequalities they experience, particularly with regard to education, we should do it. It is part of the role of education to support learners in becoming more resilient and adaptable, so that they can flourish in an environment in which change is a constant. So far, so reasonable. However, there is also something problematic about this focus on building resilience that makes me uncomfortable and which, I think, should give us concern. It seems to me to be part of a wider trend in approaches to disadvantage and exclusion that draw the eye away from the basic problems at hand and that should, therefore, be approached critically and perhaps resisted.

First, it is a concept oddly short on substance, not at all well understood or elaborated (particularly in education), which seems to be used to cover a wide range of meanings and intentions, often fairly obscure. We should be careful about attaching as much importance as we currently do to a concept that is so poorly defined, and so carelessly thrown about. What does it mean, for example, to recover quickly from adversity? How do we understand recovery or measure it? What counts as adversity? What do we know about the costs of mental toughness or the long-term consequences of enduring difficulty that might be dealt with or addressed in other ways? How well does resilience predict success in education compared to other factors, such as critical thinking or creativity? It seems to me that many of those who advance the case for foregrounding resilience in education are far too comfortable with this kind of obscurity.

There is a more important issue though. The call to resilience, while ostensibly altruistic, seems to me also to be a sort of injunction to passivity and acceptance, encouraging resignation and coping where empowerment and collective action, two of the traditional objectives of adult education, are more appropriate. As Paulo Freire wrote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, ‘the interests of the oppressors lie in changing the consciousness of the oppressed, not the situation which oppresses them; for the more the oppressed can be led to adapt to that situation, the more easily they can be dominated’. We have seen, in recent years, a kind of privatization of distress that misappropriates blame and responsibility and militates against empowerment and dialogue for change. We have pathologised the symptoms of disadvantage as though they were something that could be cured by treating the disadvantaged individual (and also, therefore, something for which the disadvantaged person can be blamed and feel responsible for). And while the global mental health crisis is serious and should be not be ignored; nor should we ignore that fact that it is in part, and in many places, the UK included (or especially), driven by a high-pressure high-stakes education system which favours the rich and privileged and stacks the odds cruelly against the poorest, all while spewing the deliriously misplaced rhetoric of meritocracy.  

There is a dark side to resilience. It can be dangerous and debasing. It can encourage us to accept things that should not be accepted, to knuckle down and make the best of it when we should be resisting and pushing for change. It can encourage us to put up with unfair or abusive treatment, and to find solutions in the things that hold us down. This is something I encountered a few years ago when, in a moment of personal crisis, I started to meet with a specialist in cognitive behavioural therapy. He helped me identify patterns of negative behavior and to see how mechanisms I had developed to cope with mental distress had become part of the cycle that, to quote Philip Larkin, kept my wheels spinning ‘an inch too high to bite on ground’. Ways of coping that had once been useful, or served some purpose, at least, were now heavy, albeit stabilizing, weights around my neck, keeping me close to ground, endlessly navigating a maze with no way out. Trapped in the amber of years-ago, I spent decades managing a grief I thought was illegitimate, that came with caveats and explanations, that was somehow frivolous. I was resilient. I kept going. But I wasn’t happy.

My experience makes me sceptical about somehow equating resilience with success. Resilience can mean no more than putting one foot in front of the other. This is not nothing. Keeping going can be an act of heroism or of rebellion. It can be everything. But it cannot be confused with happiness or success.  We need to remember that the aims of education are much broader and much more valuable than simply preparing people to keep keeping on, from school on to college, into the workplace, out of the workplace, into a relationship, into a family, onto retirement and death. We are life’s non-combatants, barely participating in our own lives, let alone impacting on other people’s. We have become so good at living in this distracted state we hardly notice we are doing it. Far too many of us live lives of absence and anxiety, paralysed by fear and uncertainty. Keeping on is the best we can think to do, and an achievement at that. We ‘bounce back’. We keep at it. And, for the most part, we put to the back of our minds the (in most cases unlikely) prospect of anything better. But we can do better and be much, much more, and that, I feel, is what education, and adult education in particular, is all about. It must support human flourishing in the fullest sense, and enable us to live lives that are creative, collaborative, compassionate and critical. Human beings, I believe, need to build, not only their resilience but also their capacity to effect change and make community. Education that does not foster our capacity to effect such change is no more than a cheap knock-off, undeserving of the name. Rather than helping people get through tough times, education should give people the means to change an unfair and dysfunctional world. Instead of asking people to put up with all the shit that is thrown at them, we should consider throwing less shit.

None of this, of course, is to say that we should not consider how to make people more resilient or that resilience is unimportant. But there is something philosophically unsatisfying about reorienting education to address this issue and attaching such overweening significance to it. I think this is because while resilience is about coping with conditions as we find them and making the best of adverse circumstances, education’s critical function is to give people hope of something better and empower them to pursue that hope. Resilience can be an admirable quality but resilience without hope can be debilitating, demeaning and, ultimately, soul-destroying. Resilience is too often a surrender, a giving up on hope, an acceptance that things cannot and will not get better. It’s also a kind of evasion, obscuring and perpetuating fundamental problems. Millions of people live with hopelessness; it has become second nature for many, even in the wealthier parts of the world. Their resilience is remarkable, hewn out of rock. But they deserve more. They should not be expected to take responsibility for political failure, to passively accept the blame for wider systemic failings. Human beings cannot just be creatures to whom things happen. It is part of our nature to influence, to make change in the world, to be activists and agitators. That is what we need, now, in this moment, more than at any point in human history, I would say. But it is not possible without hope, and hope is what education, at its very best and most admirable, fosters.

It’s England, but which England?

I don’t know if you’ve heard but England are in the final of football’s European Championships tonight, up against a very good, highly pragmatic Italian team that has forgotten how to lose. The England team is well-liked, extremely effective and resilient, and, in the inspired Raheem Sterling, possesses probably the outstanding player of the tournament. Yet, for all the undeniable qualities of the team and their extremely impressive manager, Gareth Southgate, not all English people have felt able to share in their success in the tournament, and some will feel ambivalent about the prospect of an England win.

I must admit that I have been one of them. It has been difficult to explain my lack of enthusiasm to my friends and neighbours in Germany, where I live, when they congratulate me on England’s success. They look slightly baffled when I explain: ‘Well, it’s complicated’.

But it is. While I once cheered the England team on with the best of them, I’ve come to feel excluded from their success and, to a degree, alienated from the culture in which I grew up. A lot has changed. The Brexit vote has ‘turbo-charged’ it, as Britain’s PM likes to say, but it has been coming for a while. Back in the eighties, when I started watching football, England players would either mumble their way through the national anthem – the British one, of course, that awful hymn to servility and subjecthood – or not sing at all. Now the players, to a man, belt it out, while a large minority of England supporters go a step further in demonstrating their loyalty to flag and crown by booing the anthem of the opposing team. Undoubtedly, something significant has changed in English culture since the eighties, and football, to my mind, has done more than simply reflect these changes. It has been one of the fronts of a ‘culture war’ that, far from being new, has been rumbling on in England for decades.

Things are further complicated for me by the fact that my home city is Liverpool, a place that seems always at odds with the rest of the country, and has never really thought of itself as part of England anyway. Liverpool is the city that demanded justice over Hillsborough, even when most of the rest of the country preferred to look away. It is the place that blew the whistle on the high-level cover-up that followed the disaster, and that continues to fight, even as legal avenues are closed and public interest ebbs away. It is, in a way, the painful conscience of the country, willing to hold up a mirror to the often brutal, stupidly complacent and morally repugnant face of the English establishment. It has shown how far we have fallen from our professed national values of fairness, decency and justice, and how our willingness to tolerate and condone it implicates us all.

Liverpool’s whistle-blower status helps explain why much of the rest of the country dislikes the city. This is especially true of English football supporters, some of whom revel in victim-blaming over Hillsborough and in poverty-shaming the city (in football fandom, ‘banter’ trumps class solidarity every time). In recent years, supporters of the England national team have replicated some of these chants, reinforcing the sense of alienation many people from Liverpool feel for their country and the national team. But, of course, it is not just about football. Resentment of Liverpool goes right to the top of English society, from the consideration given by the Thatcher government to the city’s ‘managed decline’ to faux England fan Boris Johnson’s typically charming description of Liverpool as a city with a ‘predilection for welfarism’ and a tendency to ‘wallow’ in its ‘victim status’. A long-term colleague of Johnson’s noted on Twitter this week that he had never known him to express any interest in football, except ‘as an excuse to attack in the most contemptible terms possible the people of Liverpool’.

English football supporters (and commentators) have become experts in an advanced sort of moral selectivism. Exploding with righteous indignation over plans for a European super league of untouchable, super wealthy and successful clubs (and Tottenham), fans have nevertheless been avid spectators in the creation a sort of mini super league at home, with honours largely shared among rich, already-successful clubs (a club in their own right, with elite-only access) which spend lavishly to maintain their success. Such is the importance attached to riches in the game that fans applaud and chant the names of the oligarchs and despots whose wealth delivers their team’s success. Others dream of their clubs being owned by foreign billionaires. Where brilliant working-class managers such as Brian Clough, Matt Busby and Bill Shankly – all devout socialists who put their principles into practice in the way they ran their clubs – once pitted their wits against Europe’s finest, now wallet is pitted against wallet in club competitions the outcomes of which are largely determined in board rooms and on billionaire’s yachts. These changes, of course, reflect changes in wider society, particularly growing inequality (austerity for the poor while the rich multiply their fortunes), social exclusion and post-industrial neglect, and the growth of a kind of culture in which money not only buys anything, it excuses everything too.

The referendum over EU membership became, entirely predictably, a catalyst for the deepening of these and other divisions in English society. While in some sense an understandable response from people in communities which felt they had nowhere to go and no prospect of positive change, Brexit also become a flag around which some of the worst elements of society could rally. Unhappily, this flag has usually been the English flag, a symbol, certainly for people of my generation, of narrow-minded nationalism and thuggery, associated with the National Front and the English Defence League. Their flag waving is not about pride or even patriotism – it is about violence, intimidation and subjugation. For some England supporters, there is no distinction between supporting England and supporting some variety of ethnic nationalism. That is what they are there for, and that, at bottom, is what drives the booing of England’s players when they take the knee. The players are not ‘neo-Marxists’ – an idea rightly dismissed as laughable by Billy Bragg in an excellent Channel 4 News interview. Instead, they represent the view of what I still like to think is a majority of people in England – that the future of the country lies in tolerance, respect for others and the equal treatment of everyone, irrespective of race, class, sex or sexual preference (all the things, in fact, that Johnson and his gang find themselves unable to support).

I know that the government does not share these values. I know that they will use an England victory tonight for their own purposes – purposes which, I confidently suppose, run counter to those of the current England team and their manager. And I know that the ethnic nationalists who hide behind the flag will celebrate an England win as a win for their ugly, divisive beliefs. Despite this, and despite everything I have written above, I want England to win. As Billy Bragg said, the current England team is a ‘reflection of who we are’ not who we used to be or who we imagine we once were. They also embody some of the values I want to think can again be associated with England and Englishness: they are tolerant, socially aware, open-minded, at ease with diversity and united. I like that they are politically engaged and progressive – after all, politics has been all over football for years – you can’t keep politics out of it, nor should you. I like too that this England is proper team – no stars, no privileges, winning and losing together, as a group. The players are, in many respects, who we want to be. They are not playing for the boo boys or the bigots. Nor do they play for politicians who represent English isolationism and half-baked hostility to foreigners. They represent an England that is for everyone.

I am not sure the England flag can be reclaimed – it has too many ugly connotations for too many people, in many cases much worse than my own (see, for example, this excellent thread from Carys Afoko). But we can certainly reclaim what Englishness means. I realized this week that I was allowing a minority of thugs and racist bigots to determine what Englishness meant to me. I also realized that the success of this English team means something else – it represents hope for a future that is fair, tolerant and inclusive. Their victory would, ultimately, be a defeat for narrow-minded nationalism and, however they strain to claim a victory for themselves and their values, the politicians who espouse it.

Win or lose, though, this team has shown its country the way, and held out a hope of something better, a more positive and inclusive form of patriotism we can all get behind. It is about more than football. It is about which England we want. The England of empire and exploitation, Johnson, Patel and the EDL, or the kinder, better England of Carys Afoko, Billy Bragg, Marcus Rashford and Jordan Henderson. I know who I’ll be shouting for.