Last weekend our glorious government spiced up the long bank holiday with its own special blend of haplessness and idiocy, proposing that all under 25s be denied Housing Benefit, thus forcing them to “move back in with their parents”.
It does not take long to realise why this is completely unworkable: many people cannot move back in with their parents, many parents do not have room – especially those who have separated, found a new partner, or been compelled to downsize rented property. In the end the reasons for quietly dropping it are far more about the cost of assessment rather than those who cannot speak up to say “I can’t”: those estranged, those abused by their families as well as LGBTQ youth who would be forced into abusive relationships, survival sex work, and street homelessness.
It is wrong to dismiss the suggestion out of hand as simply a bank holiday-motivated wheeze, however. Among the callous indifference and breathtaking naivete, a few good intentions lie buried. When seen alongside Rowan Williams’ speech on the ills of identity politics, a pattern begins to emerge of a rising tide of nostalgic communal conservatism. To remain with this specific case, perhaps some young queers will be able to repair their relationships with parents once forced back into the parental home. Yet, for me, the thing that worked to restore my once-fraught relationship was distance: with distance came the ability to see things clearly, and with distance came equality of power. The one thing that would not have worked is trying to force me into a proximity that, through putting us on an uneven footing, would have prevented real communication and created an abusive relationship. As a lonely young queer person, I knew this well, and had I had to choose between that and the streets, I would have chosen the streets.
This is not just about me, however. Not just the Tories but Labour have been speaking of this. Take this quote from 2010, for example:
“The politics of equality of opportunity has licensed ever greater inequality; we need instead a more radical economic egalitarianism coupled with the recognition of a difference of roles and a hierarchy of excellence.”
If this sounds like justification of entrenched inequality couched in the language of progressiveness, well, that’s exactly what it is. But it’s not alone. Today saw two astonishing pieces on gay rights: one in the Guardian, advocating that Stonewall, a notoriously socially conservative group, should stop advocating social change and stick to an almost-Victorian charitable comforting of the bullied; the other in the Telegraph, arguing that the Christian message that “Gayness can be cured” is more progressive than “We should stop attacking gay people”.
Never mind the facts, this utopian vision of return to some imagined communal, conservative past is here to stay, and as equal rights legislation is repealed and campaigns against abortion ramp up in both the US and the UK, this is rhetoric that we will see again and again.
So where is this drive coming from? It is worth taking some time to look at the idea of the community, the communal. In Science Fiction fandom, a generational shift is becoming apparent, with new activist writers and fans clashing with an older communal “union culture“; the new generation centres anger at racism and other forms of often unconscious discrimination, while the old generation centres following established procedures and first taking care of the emotional needs of the group. Both groups often have the same aims, which makes the disagreements all the more bitter and heartbreaking. When miscommunication happens, it seems almost intangible: we seem to inevitably split into both sides, with neither comprehending the emotional dynamics and unstated assumptions of the other.
Ideas of the “new lost generation”, the “generation without a future” are mocked almost as often as they are felt to be fiercely true. Yet the gap between generations is not just an economic divide. Neoliberalism has struck deeply at the structure of social relations, leaving the majority of a generation with embedded liberal assumptions that there truly is no “us and them”: just as there is no outgroup which is fundamentally and absolutely different, there is no ingroup which can always be trusted and relied upon for support. Each social relationship must for ever be renegotiated at the point of contact, like a NHS service put out to tender to the best-connected bidder. The assumption that no outgroup member is fundamentally different doesn’t combat prejudice, it simply airbrushes it, writing off discrimination as failure to meet a set of “objective” criteria, meritocracy in action. There is no real ingroup, only circumstance and situational alliance. We are all in competition with one other, from the cradle to the grave.
How can we imagine something other than this? At present this is a difficult question: we already seem to be living in a dystopia imagined by our forebears, with Orwell and Atwood seeming more like writers of a blueprint than warners against potential disaster. Dystopian fiction is incredibly popular, particularly among young women, who already face vastly intense pressures on their appearance and conduct. Do we already live in a kind of surveillance society, where keeping a watchful eye on one another has replaced mutual identification, respect, care?
It’s starting to seem as if we do, which is one reason why nostalgic, dangerous dreams of some sleepy 1950s village have such appeal.
If we are not to sleepwalk into some hellish future-past, we need to begin thinking big and daring to dream beyond identity politics – in a positive sense. We need to reforge some new version of the communal, collapsing down neoliberalism’s eternal Elsewhere and Elsewhen of suffering and dissent in order to Be in the here and now. We need to recognise the inherent ambiguity of technological progress, yet turn it into a tool in our hands and at the direction of our imagination, not of our fears. We need to re-centre science and factual analysis, while remaining conscious of science as a social process that can be twisted to any end. We need to sweep away old certainties, and turn away from the past to look ahead into the real future, with our only comfort the fact that we are not doing so alone, but are proceeding, step by rough step, hand in hand.