Sunday, September 26, 2010

Extract from work in progress: an introduction of sorts.

The 1970s remains the most reviled decade in post-war British life. The conventional wisdom has it that but for the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1978, the country would have definitively collapsed. This is the decade, subsequent politicians have repeatedly told us, from which we must learn and to which we must never return.

The post-war consensus, which had meant that both the main political parties were committed to the welfare state and a Keynesian economic model, was unravelling. Britain’s high levels of external debt and low levels of productivity, the expense to government in maintaining inefficient national industries and the power of unions in driving up wages all exerted pressure upon what was increasingly perceived as an unsustainable system. Unemployment rose, inflation and the even more terrifying stagflation loomed, industrial relations were at an all time low, there were periodic currency and debt crises, electricity rationing lead to periods of blackout and the three day week.

Yet there has also been a process of reassessing and reclaiming the 70s as a period in which income differentials reached an all time low, when the smallest number of children were living in poverty, when university education was still free and standards of literacy high, when public broadcasting was not only the envy of the world in terms of seriousness and quality but also represented something of an artistic vanguard. For some the decade was simply the “hangover from the Sixties” but in another sense it was the point at which much of the experiment and rhetoric of the “revolutionary” Sixties began to seep into the fabric of everyday life.

The Sixties have proved congenial to the late neo-liberal imagination (Blairism) as a period in which Britain boomed and swang, an era of rising living standards and high consumption, new freedoms found, the old establishment in decline and youth on the rise, a period in which barriers of class and race seemed to partially evaporate. If the Sixties exists in the popular imagination and culture as an explosion of colour and experiment, a Ludic interlude, then the Seventies are seen as a period of conflict and decay, its colour scheme is concrete gray, the faces are unlovely, the demeanour militant.

Is a Summer of Love as fundamental a moment in terms of power relations as a Winter of Discontent? The Seventies are to some degree the decade in which the Sixties get real and what is broadly feared in their return is not the economic woes the country suffered, indeed the recently elected Conservative-Lib-Dem coalition, is presiding over a period of higher unemployment, greater national debt and more stringent demands for austerity in public services than we have ever seen, but a return of militancy. A fear of feminism, unionism, class antagonism, of personal and public life re-infused with the pain of strident and systematic critique. This is, on one level what the neo-liberal Restoration has rescued us from: the agony of examining ourselves and our world, the agony of questioning. The End of History thesis, the idea that Capitalism offers the only viable economic system, offers massive psychic relief. The “cursed questions” as Russian thinkers of the 19th century wittily dubbed them, those questions which humanity seems compelled to ask itself but which admit of no simple or single answer, how should a man live, what is a good society, have finally been settled.

But in the Seventies themselves these debates and the forces contending to shape the future were very much alive. The Nineties and early Noughties have been characterized by a wistful, diffuse melancholy (the affect attendant on, to my mind, a situation having been intractably but unsatisfyingly resolved) throughout music (the whole slew of post-Radiohead bands) literature (those “burned children of America”) and film ( American Indy): the British films of the Sixties and Seventies are sites of conflict, not only in terms of the subject matter but also formally. One of the basic contentions here will be that in the Seventies certain cultural and political trends partly developing out of native British traditions clash with others set in motion by the emergence of the USA as the global superpower and the early phases of what would later become known as globalization. England is one of the first developed countries to experience what Naomi Klein defines as “the shock doctrine”, the assault upon public services, privatization, mass-unemployment, outsourcing of labour etc, in effect “structural adjustment”. The anticipation of this casts a kind of shadow back through films of the Sixties and Seventies, the anxiety about Britain and the British way of life, the collapse of the old order and the question of what will replace it. At the same time the British psyche comes under attack from new and less conservative forms of expression in the cultural sphere: the greater degrees of sexual imagery and graphic violence permissible in other countries. There is a drive toward the real in Cinema also, reaching its height in the States with Deep Throat (1972) and the series of Italian Mondo movies and Giallos that culminates in Deodato’s Cannibal Apocalypse (1980).

It is appropriate then, to see the Seventies as a time of crisis, but as every good MBA student knows, one man’s crisis is another’s opportunity. Who gained the upper- hand and why in the fallout from the battles of the Seventies is the remit of a different book, but crisis of all kinds, crisis postponed, immanent and passed through is understood as fundamental to the films under discussion. The Seventies as an interstitial period in which things could have gone several ways, a period of anomie and great internal and external tension, an interregnum whose atmosphere is partly made-up of the first rumblings of the storm which must surely come and the slowly dimming glow of the glorious thirty years.


Anonymous said...

Excellent choice of image for this post.

Ruling/upper middle class to the lower orders:

"No more playing games with me, sonny Jim. I've had a disappointing decade, so I'll have to punch your fucking kidneys in."

Excellent points about the decade, though. The conflicts felt very 'real' in many films from the period - even in children's and horror movies.

I think a lot of the 'hauntology' hype was basically a generation (of men, mainly) who grew up during a time when serious questions could be asked, and you were 'safe' to do so (from free university to public TV to the unionised workplace). The 'haunting' was in becoming an adult and finding out that was no longer the case, with the culture denying it ever was.

Benjamin said...

I always saw 1974 as our 68, and although I'm not a real fan David Peace's novels map the period (or what Badiou would call a 'sequence') of struggle and defeat (74-84). Also, reminds me of Badiou's thesis of the 'passion for the real', putting the utopian into action in the UK arrived rather late...

In terms of the conspiratorial activities of the proto-new right in this period Dorril and Ramsey's Smear! Harold Wilson and the Secret State puts a sinister spin on those comic takes on right-wing 'armies' plotting coups in the period (like the later Fairly Secret Army).

I also think there's definitely more to be said on 1970s 'repressive desublimation'; much as I like much of the horror/extreme cinema of this period there's not much doubting its often vile misogyny and political dubiousness.

Anonymous said...

I agree about the mysoginy (rape was 70s motif more than torture is in the 00s - every star seemed to have ast least one rape scene). But one of the most interesting things to me about the 70s was the openess of conflict that was apparent in mainstream, exploitation and arthouse, left, right and liberal. ie. Boss v. Workers Man v. Woman, Black v. White, Cop v. Society, Govt v. Truth etc. etc. Even the goofiest comedies rose to it.

The continuing fascination that we have for the horror/darker films of the time was how it crudely threw up 'sublimated' conflicts.

Could an oscar contender now deal with incestuous rape, long-term corporate evil, and the absolute failure of 'personal redemption' in a movie featuring superstars, with a hit soundtrack album, directed by a pervert whose wife was butchered? Not since E.T....

Rossikovsky said...

Very good. I'm very tempted by this book, I must say.

In a sense though, I don't think the '70's ever really ended, they were just temporarily suspended by North Sea/Prudhoe Bay oil and the removal of the various taboos regarding debt issuance (plus new creative ways of "hedging" it). This was all the neoliberal project ultimately amounted to. The deep structural problems of the UK were never addressed.

I think the upcoming fractiousness that will be generated by the cuts will be as nothing if and when oil depletion makes itself felt. The OPEC oil embargo was the true dress rehearsal for the what lies ahead of us.

Anonymous said...

Even the nobel prize for that year was telling:

"Friedrich Hayek shares the 1974 Nobel Prize in Economics with ideological rival Gunnar Myrdal "for their pioneering work in the theory of money and economic fluctuations and for their penetrating analysis of the interdependence of economic, social and institutional phenomena.".

Anonymous said...

couple of things....

actually i've been toying with the pun "depressive resublimation" to describe the paradoxical psychic fallout of the domination of neo-liberalism...

intersting you mention Chinatown as i plan to use a quote from the film as the epigram,.. ie this one

"GITTES I want to know what you're worth --over ten million?

CROSS Oh, my, yes.

GITTES Then why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can't already afford?

CROSS(a long moment,then:)
The future, Mr. Gittes -- the future."

also re the oil, i agree... the extent to which thatcher was bailed out by the oil money coming ashore in i guess 83, something which could easily have become the bequest of a Labour governemt had the election come earlier, rather undercuts the supposed economic miracle of neo liberalism, dunnit? Am i correct in thinking that we have been/are a larger oil producer than Kuwait?

i've been trying to get hold of a copy of Wasted Windfall the old channel four documentary on the subject....our own oil production/revenue basically went into funding unemployment during the early "restructuring" of the economy from what i understand...

got any figures on that Rossikovsky?

if i get time i'm going to write a post on the Thai movie Meat Grinder as indicative of late capitalism odd combination of Disney-like emotional affects a dn extreme gore/horror (though also see miike takahashi's "audition")

didn't uncle milt win the nobel prize for economics in the early seventies too?

also gents, why dont you email me, as i have a suggestion... my e-mails up there in the profile

Rossikovsky said...

Anon (Carl?),

The interesting thing about the "Nobel Prize" for Economics is that it isn't a real Nobel Prize (i.e. nomintated by the Nobel Committee) at all, but one created by the Economics profession to big itself up as an actual science.

It's part of the general unreality of neoliberalism (actually denial of reality) that it is justified by a bogus profession that has a worse prediction record than meteorology.

I don't think that we're a larger producer than Kuwait anymore, as North Sea oil is well into the depletion stage (we're sucking the bubbles at the bottom of the milk shake, apparently). Again, it's archetypal that this epochal, future-defining event has been pretty much ignored by the mainstream media, as though it doesn't matter.

I remember as a kid in the '70's where things like whether a company was domestically or foreign-owned were seen as hugely important, and fluctations in steel and coal production were worthy of news coverage. I remember experiencing quite a few power cuts when the power workers went on strike, and although this was "inefficient" it did bring home how precarious and vital the provision of these things was.

I think neoliberalism has set up a strange kind of feedback loop where the seamlessness of the provision of services, to the point where they become almost ontological, leads to an illusional sense of security, which leads to them being considered unimportant, which leads to short-termist investment strategies, which ironically manifest themselves in a transitory sense of seamlessness. Until the day of reckoning, of course.

All this is justified by the neolibs as hard-nosed economic realism. :)

Anonymous said...

Ha! I remember getting all patriotic as a five-year old that my toy cars were all 'made in Britain' (you could also pay a bloke in a shop to fix 'em too, y'know!).

Anonymous said...

"Because, given the right circumstances Mr. Gittes, a man is capable of... anything"

parodijski centr said...

Carl I just paid 15 euro for Classless it better be GODDAMN GOOD.

chump said...

i must buy your buy buy. hic.