Queen Victoria in Drag? By William Bowles

8 June 2004

So 24-hour drinking will be with us shortly which means that people will be able to forget how unhappy they are 24/7. Predictably, the killjoys amongst us are whinging about binging but like everything else under overdue capitalism, rather than deal with causes, it’s easier to dump on the effects.

Taken collectively, with every passing day, the impact of unbridled capitalism takes on the appearance of Victorian England but without the yellow smog and workhouses (our smog is invisible but just as deadly).

And there is a certain irony in our situation for one of the most striking aspects I noticed on my return to England after 28 years was we now have a (non)working class but one devoid of solidarity. They have no unions, no neighbourhoods and no networks. They exist in less than splendid isolation trapped on housing estates and surrounded by the drug squads. The nearest they get to a network is the Job Centre or the DHSS (Dept of Health and Social Security) offices, soulless and air-conditioned assembly lines policed by outsourced (privatised) security companies, who patrol the hushed confines muttering into minute microphones whenever a sign of incipient rage and despair manifests itself, ready to subdue and eject the offending ‘anti-social’ individual.

This then, is corporatised Britain, crisscrossed by multi-lane highways, jammed with automobiles and in-between, reconstituted chunks of freeze-dried ‘heritage’ that purportedly recreate an England before the combined onslaught of ThatcherBlair did a number on the place.

Nostalgia on my part? No way! The England of my youth was grey and semi-pulverised, a genuine penumbra of its former self, that in any case was already mythologised way back under Victoria. The England of today is just a hologrammatic version of a version (more wheels within wheels).

The place is a genuine Thatcherite nightmare of a world composed largely of digital versions of what used be called money but which now exists only in some virtual transnational space, forever moving at lightspeed between one financial centre and another, shedding or accruing value along the way but always to someone else’s cost.

What’s left behind is a simulacra of the original world of things and one is never sure where it is either. So to visit my bank I have to phone someone up somewhere in India who in turn phones up someone somewhere in Southwark, but that’s okay too. Flick a switch, pull a fuse, hack a server and it all comes to a grinding halt. Or perhaps some socially malnourished kid somewhere decides to release yet another virus aimed directly at the heart of Microsoft’s operating system in another symptom of our digital rage.

Redundancy has a new meaning in the age of electron, the rest of us are merely downsized, shrunken to manageable, byte-sized morsels that can be funneled down broad-band pipes.

So this is modern Britain, surveilled by plus/minus 3 million video cameras whose images end up who knows where (Langley, Virginia?) for processing and/or future retrieval should the need arise (and it surely will).

And ‘they’ ponder on the very real state of unhappiness. What can be the cause of such ennui a million pundits ask in the Institute of Unhappiness, forever producing algorithms of angst, diagrams of desperation, foci of frustrations. Yet another virtual industry is built out of the very real pain of emptiness and alienation that along with the breweries, the National Health Service and the television networks attempts to anaesthetize the nation.

But I suppose it’s only fair, after all who knows how many tens of thousands of people owe their credit ratings and over-valued semis to starvation and failed state(us) somewhere in the world. And they say charity begins at home, but where is home?

This then is the reconstituted Victorian Britain of Thatcher/Blair, sanitised and somnabulised somewhat but even more pageantised than the wildest dreams of an imperial England at the height of its powers (circa 1890).

And the parallels are more than symbolic. After all, the financial scandals and unbridled speculation that beset Victorian England (think about the railways, the South Sea Bubble and so on) in a very real sense are the equivalents to the dotcom boom and bust and the Enrons of the 90s, one hundred years later. And they say history repeats itself as farce?

As I watched the fantasy world of D-Day unfold on my TV screen, and listened to the BBC announcer say for the millionth time, “this hugely significant event”, I thought about the 20 or 30 million Russians who died destroying the Nazi war machine who got not a mention in the endless hours of the recreation of the Normandy landings. The headline in the Independent (08/06/04) summed it up, “Europe’s Liberators”. This is history rewrit in a hugely big way.

And by some fluke of nature, the Gipper finally kicked it after ten years of playing at being dead, a bit like Francisco Franco and was likewise euologised on the nation’s media, neglecting of course in another ‘hugely rewritten history’ the real story of this other reactionary throwback to the age of Victoria.

“Reagan refused to mention AIDS publicly for six years, under-funded federal programs dealing with the disease and, according to his authorized biography, said, “Maybe the Lord brought down this plague,” because “illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments.”

“…Reagan’s economic policies were a disaster for working-class Americans. Reagan presided over the worst recession since the 1930s, and economic growth in the 1980s was lower than in the 1970s, despite the stimulus of military Keynesian policies, which created massive federal budget deficits and tripled the federal debt. By the end of the decade, real wages were down and the poverty rate had increased by 20 percent.

‘“Reagan was many things, but “gifted” was not one of them. “Poor dear,” remarked British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, his closest international ally, “there’s nothing between his ears.” As for a “moral man,” Reagan’s morality included union busting—beginning with his dismissal of striking air traffic controllers in 1981—an unprecedented war on the poor, opposition to civil rights and support for apartheid South Africa. The “moral” Reagan trained and supported terrorists, including the Nicaraguan contras (”the moral equal of our Founding Fathers”) who killed over 30,000 people, and Islamic radicals in Afghanistan who later formed the al-Qaeda network.” – See Counterpunch for the complete essay

And as with Victorian England, we have no competition, our power girdles the earth. We owe allegiance to no one (except our Anglo-Saxon cousins across the pond who apparently own us, lock, stock and barrel).

But perhaps we’ll have our very own 1917 in 2017? And this may not be just idle speculation or wishful thinking, for as with Victorian Britain, just beneath the surface lurks chaos and filth, barely under control, waiting to burst forth like a busted sewer pipe.

Who in 1904 would have credited that a mere 13 years later, a revolution would occur that shook the world and changed everything, everywhere and whose legacy we grapple with to this day?

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