After the Apocalypse

The growing appeal of dystopias, end-of-the-world scenarios and depopulated landscapes is often attributed to cultural decline – but it also speaks to a mourning for better worlds we failed to build.

In that three month ‘lull’  between the two shocks of the December 2019 election and the March 2020 lockdown, I remember frequently staring at a building called 22 Bishopsgate, the new ‘tallest building in the City of London’. It had recently been completed, but the lighting system was still being tested – so as soon as it got dark at around 4 or 5pm, the entire 62 storey structure was lit up from top to bottom, like a beacon of evil. It seemed, like the dazzling lightshow on the Shard that New Year’s Eve, to be a sort of victory celebration on the part of the City, which of course ‘rallied’ after the Tories won the election. ‘You thought you could defeat us, poor worm?’

Higher and wider than anything else in the City’s cluster of skyscrapers, the building it most resembled wasn’t a previous piece of architecture in London but the enormous mental hospital where  experiments are made on children in Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 anime classic Akira. It was in these months that I came to the realisation that this was the future my generation had been promised after all: our very own science-fiction dystopia.

One of the most influential currents that fed, after a fashion, into Corbynism was fixated on a certain idea of the future, which had been lost with neoliberalism and neoconservatism. The ‘Hauntology’ proposed by Mark Fisher and others fixated on a ghostly popular modernism made up of BBC plays and the 1970s BBC Radiophonic Workshop, of Penguin Books and the Open University, of Brutalist architecture and Tomorrow’s World, and asked how this bureaucratic yet optimistic and accessible culture was overtaken by the idiocy of a BBC4 ‘I’m going on a journey’ documentary, by silly brightly coloured buildings with wavy roofs and ‘giving people what they want’.

But for those of us who were born after around 1975, this wasn’t the future we were ‘promised’ at all – it had ended before we were born. That was part of its attraction, something that was completely alien but easily found on a walk round your city or a visit to your second-hand bookshop – or YouTube.

On the contrary, we’d grown up as children and adolescents with futuristic and cheap American-Japanese cartoons designed to sell toys, then moved on to The Terminator or Robocop or Total Recall, when we were old enough to be allowed to watch them. We had been told ‘the future’ would be one of skyscraper skylines with dilapidated streets below, ruled over by malevolent corporations, evil media moguls and cartoonish dictators. Notwithstanding the absence of flying cars, the apocalyptic reality of London, Leeds, or Manchester in 2020 was pretty much as promised – even before the pandemic hit.

I was thinking about this on reading the Croatian philosopher  Srećko Horvat’s After the Apocalypse, a book which gives an account of some recent ‘apocalypses’ – the effects of climate change, already felt in the enormous fires in California and Australia, the turn to what Richard Seymour calls ‘disaster nationalism’, and the cult of the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant in Ukraine. ‘In early 2020,’ Horvat writes,

‘world history accelerated to such a degree that we suddenly found ourselves in the future of an unprecedented planetary ‘state of exception’ and, at the same time, in a phase of imminent system crisis that would have effects not only on the future of humanity, but also on the future of the planet itself.’

All these moments offered a chance to change course, a chance which has been repeatedly missed; seizing that chance was exactly what we were trying to do in Corbynism.

Horvat’s version of ‘apocalypse’ is based on reminding us that the English translation of the term is ‘Revelation’ – that is, a moment which suddenly illuminates how things actually are. What makes Covid-19 apocalyptic in his view isn’t just the mass morgues, the empty streets, the masks, and the grounded planes – on the contrary, it’s as ‘a unique x-ray machine that allowed us to understand the architecture of our world, both place and time, much better than ever before. Will we miss this chance for a profound transformation that is needed if we want to have a future at all?’.

There have been successive moments over the last thirteen years where there has been an apparent ‘revelation’ that the system did not work in the most basic sense – before the pandemic, the most obvious was the financial crisis, where the state bailout of the entire banking system, at a cost greater than was spent on the Second World War only apparently mortally wounded the neoliberal claim that the market was in all cases more efficient than the state. Horvat sums these up as moments where ‘everything had to change, so that everything could stay the same. Or even worse.’

The problem is when you give up and start to take some sort of morbid pleasure – and that really is the word – in the scale of destruction and disaster, and being awed by the enormous power of the forces ranged against us, which I think is what I was doing in staring constantly at 22 Bishopsgate. In 1936, Walter Benjamin spotted this impulse in Italian Futurism’s love of war and the destruction of towns and cities, which eventually fed into Italian Fascism – Fascism was a sign that capitalist culture’s ‘self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.’

We’ve had a smaller-scale version of this for a while: the film-maker Patrick Keiller recalled how by the early 1990s, the amount of defeats the British left had suffered meant that many shifted to a sort of admiration of their enemies and the world they’d built. That’s how a lot of New Labour figures got started – ‘can’t beat ’em, join ’em.’

Many of the best energies of the left in the last decade have been dedicated to ‘reclaiming’ the idea of the future from capital, and from the apocalyptics of the right. This could be found in the work of such as Nick Srnicek, Alex Williams, Helen Hester and the Xenofeminism Collective, and of Aaron Bastani; while contrary to these trends, ‘De-Growth’ advocates imagine slowing down technological change, in many cases in favour of some kind of ecosocialism.

What all of these share is the belief that we can actually shape the future, and can actually do something about it. Certainly, in terms of ‘new ideas’, the intellectuals of the British left have had the edge over the thinkers of the right for a while, who are unable to think beyond a sombre, whiny remix of Ed Miliband’s communitarian update of New Labour.

Among the most ridiculed policies of 2019, despite it being a reality in several actually existing capitalist countries, was the futuristic promise of free, nationalised broadband, with the tree-planting programme of the Green New Deal just behind. One of the bleaker conclusions one could draw from this is that there is a deep disinterest in the idea of a ‘better future’, especially from those who are least likely to be alive when it – or the final collapse – happens.

Horvat’s book does not draw on any of this; but what does come through strongly is the danger of aestheticising and enjoying disaster, which ranges from the TV shows people watch to the way they go on holiday. Writing of how – before the pandemic – mass tourism had de-stabilised the already fragile ecosystems and cityscapes of the Adriatic, whether Venice or the Croatian coast where he lives, Horvat writes that ‘every city on both sides of the Adriatic coast was turned into a postmodern Pompeii’ in the last decade.

This consumption of the post-apocalyptic, of the landscape of the disaster, links Pompeii, Dubrovnik and Pripyat, the city evacuated after the Chernobyl explosion. On a ‘Chernobyl tour’ of the deserted Ukrainian city, he overhears people saying ‘this is the hospital and this is the school‘, drawing on their appearances in video game Call of Duty and the Chernobyl miniseries, much as people in Dubrovnik point out the particular places used in the filming of Game of Thrones. What is the appeal of this?

For Horvat, it’s all about melancholy, and he’s not entirely critical of this. As much as it is logical to be angry, it is right to be sad or upset at the sight of the enormous waste and suffering that is being inflicted, and that will continue to be inflicted. He calls for ‘de-pathologising melancholy’ in response to this; rather than opposing mourning and organising, he argues that we are entirely capable of doing both.

This might be a much smarter approach than it sounds – because the fact is, we’re going to be living in somebody else’s future for a long while yet, before we finally get to construct our own.