This rich ac­count of how peo­ple nav­i­gate the post­truth world sug­gests that ir­ra­tional­ity gives struc­ture to anx­ious lives

The Guardian Weekly - - Culture - By Suzanne Moore SUZANNE MOORE IS A GUARDIAN COLUM­NIST

In a re­cent es­say in the Lon­don Re­view of Books, John Lanch­ester said that if you wanted to un­der­stand any­thing about the state of the world to­day, you had to look at what led to the crash 10 years ago and its af­ter­math – and to do that, you need not econ­o­mists but so­ci­ol­o­gists. Econ­o­mists, af­ter all, are mostly fol­low­ers of, as well as stu­dents of, cap­i­tal­ism. Wil­liam Davies is just the kind of so­ci­ol­o­gist Lanch­ester might be talk­ing about, the kind we need right now to tease out what Ray­mond Wil­liams used to call a “struc­ture of feel­ing”. Here is some­one will­ing to ex­ca­vate and trace what un­der­pins our cur­rent sense of anx­i­ety.

There is no doubt that we live in anx­ious times, no longer trust­ing ei­ther ex­perts or politi­cians, fear­ful of ter­ror, of­ten dwelling in the past, un­sure what the cri­te­ria for truth are in a world of al­ter­na­tive facts. We are vis­cer­ally geared up for im­mi­nent catas­tro­phe. Davies de­fines this as our “ner­vous state”, al­ways tee­ter­ing on the edge of con­flict.

How have we reached this place? Is this a ra­tio­nal way to be? Davies un­picks the his­tory of ideas – Hobbes’s com­mit­ment to rea­son, Descartes’s mind/body split – to show that, as these foun­da­tional con­cepts have been shaken, we have un­rav­elled. The ground no longer feels solid. There is a strong sense of Han­nah Arendt run­ning through this work. Arendt an­a­lysed power and spoke of the west’s “cu­ri­ous pas­sion for ob­jec­tiv­ity”. It has pro­duced ex­perts armed with sta­tis­tics that bear lit­tle re­la­tion­ship to lived re­al­ity. Take the nar­ra­tive of progress, for in­stance: the fact is, says Davies, that more than half the US pop­u­lace has ex­pe­ri­enced no eco­nomic progress for 40 years.

That this may cause re­sent­ment is hardly sur­pris­ing, and re­sent­ment is the key emo­tion in the rise of pop­ulism. Na­tion­al­ism does not arise un­bid­den but oc­curs when emo­tions such as fear, anx­i­ety and, I would sug­gest, lone­li­ness can find no demo­cratic voice.

Brexit is the ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple, as Davies re­minds us. I get bored with re­main­ers quot­ing sta­tis­tics at leavers to demon­strate that they have their facts wrong. Re­ally, they are telling them that their feel­ings are wrong. But dis­miss­ing the ir­ra­tional does not de­stroy it. Brexit is some­times de­scribed as self-harm, blow­ing apart the ac­cepted wis­dom that peo­ple vote pri­mar­ily for eco­nomic rea­sons. How­ever, for those suf­fer­ing, self-harm is a tak­ing back of agency.

In a bril­liant chap­ter, Davies cen­tres the phys­i­cal body in po­lit­i­cal dis­course. Those suck­ered in by pop­ulist and na­tion­al­ist move­ments, both in Europe and the US, tend to be those liv­ing with pain, chronic ill­ness and de­pres­sion, he sug­gests. Pain cre­ates “an ab­sence of nar­ra­tive”, while pop­ulism, by chan­nelling re­sent­ment, pro­vides one. He de­scribes how pain, and the prom­ise of its end via the mar­ket, is pre­cisely what cre­ated the Oxy­Con­tin epi­demic. Yet peo­ple still trust the mar­ket more than gov­ern­ment. Even as it throws up “war­rioren­trepreneurs”, as Davies calls them, such as Peter Thiel and Arron Banks, who pose as antielite de­spite their huge wealth.

Such peo­ple glide through the post-truth world with a prom­ise that we can have more con­trol. So­cial me­dia adds to this il­lu­sion. Davies fizzes with lu­cid­ity on Mark Zucker­berg’s “at­ten­tion econ­omy” and how it re­quires us to in­vest emo­tion­ally more and more.

At times, Davies’s weav­ing to­gether of so many ideas feels over­whelm­ing in an Adam Cur­tissy way, and it is hard to know where this will lead us. He has noth­ing to say on gen­der, which is in­ter­est­ing. But per­haps that’s an­other book.

What he is cer­tainly do­ing is point­ing to­wards the need to re­set tra­di­tional po­lit­i­cal anal­y­sis, which doesn’t take con­tra­dic­tory feel­ings into ac­count. Take im­mi­gra­tion: peo­ple can feel si­mul­ta­ne­ously threat­ened and un­der­stand that their lives are en­hanced by it.

Davies is a won­der­fully alert and nimble guide and his ab­sorb­ing and edgy book will help us feel our way to a bet­ter fu­ture. Af­ter all, it is only through un­der­stand­ing our anx­i­ety and ac­knowl­edg­ing our pain that a dif­fer­ent world can be made. Psy­chother­a­pists call this “the work” and Davies is do­ing some of the heavy lift­ing and prob­ing for us. Ob­server


Ner­vous States: How Feel­ing Took Over the World by Wil­liam Davies

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