book cover - nervous state, by William Davies

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



Have you ever wondered why people vote for or support something diametrically opposed to their own best interests?   Why did so many Germans vote for Hitler?  Look what it brought them!  Why do so many Americans support Trump?  Look what it’s doing to them!  Why did so many English vote for Brexit?  Look what it’s going to bring them too.

If the outcomes are so clear, why doesn’t everyone see it?   The following might offer a slight clue.  Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and armaments minister, generally credited with adding two years to the war with his efficient organisation of German industry, as a young man used to read Hitler’s speeches.  He wondered how anyone could be taken in by such facile nonsense.  Just to prove it to himself, he want along to a live performance.  Hitler began speaking – and Speer fell under his spell – a spell that was broken only with Germany’s utter destruction.

Hunter S. Thompson in his 1967 book, The Hell’s Angels, his tale of the eponymous motorcycle gang, says its members supported the ultra right wing John Birch Society, commenting drily that if it ever did get in to power, the first people up against a wall would be, yes, the Hell’s Angels.  He also describes the fascination – and hatred – that ordinary Americans felt towards the Angels, whom he describes as a bunch of losers.  Why?  Because a lot of them too were a bunch of losers, losers in denial, but were drawn to the repulsive image of their unrecognised kin as going down fighting.  “If every loser in the United States rode a motorcycle”, writes Thompson, “the whole highway system would have to be modified”.  Bear in mind this book was written during the high noon, the very zenith   of the American Dream; fast forward that credo to the present day where for the most part no-one even pretends to dream, outside of a narcotics induced stupor, and we are faced with something very scary.

What the heck is going on?  How did we get here?  What is going to happen?

William Davies’ book Nervous States: How Feeling Took over the World is as good an insight into these questions as we’re going to get. And it’s very scary.

Davies goes back into history and examines that long, slow process, discernable only in hindsight, of the emergence and acceptance of objective standards.  Put simply, Europeans societies, spearheading a completely new paradigm,  started developing trust in institutions, institutions beyond their immediate world and localities: trust in the law, trust in medicine, trust in doctors, trust in engineers, trust in experts, trust in administration, trust in governments, trust in everything that makes a society work, in other words.  And of course, trust in money.  If anyone doubts this, take out a £20 note (a £5 note if  can’t afford a 20).  Have a good look at it.  What is it?  Underneath all the symbolism, the copy resistant design, the legalities and the exchangeability, there lurks one stark fact: it is a piece of paper or, increasingly, a piece of plastic.  Yes, it has a value, a value depending on the number written on it but where does that value come from?  It comes from you!  It comes from you and all the people who handle it.  Ultimately, what gives that piece of paper in your hand its prescribed value is your belief in it.  It is your belief that you can trade it for goods and services and that everyone else has the same belief, that gives it its value.  You believe in its institution.  You trust it!

And our trust in institutions is not just confined to bits of paper.  Our everyday lives are wholly dependent  on trust in institutions for our world to function,  from use of credit cards, to on-line shopping, to receiving state benefits, to use of emergency services and just about everything that involves a transaction of some sort outside our closest personal contacts.

Of course there were trusted institutions in many parts of the world long before the introduction of paper money.  Indeed some British, at least those in high office,  in the 17th century used to admire the Chinese system for its exam based meritocracy in creating that vital tool of objective administration, an effective civil service, in contrast to their own class based system. But Europe was changing and, incidentally, as Britain changed so did its view of the Chinese.  It could be said the trust requirement was shifting.  Francis Drake, the much vaunted defender of England was in effect, little more than a self interested pirate, which is how the Spanish see him to this day, and it took Oliver Cromwell to actually establish a proper navy.  The changing nature of society, the growing strength of nation states and especially the industrial revolution, and the necessary institutions thus spawned, required people’s trust.  Why did they give it?  Because they benefited from it.    In pre-revolutionary France, the state (l’état, c’est moi) only took.  One of the reasons Napoleon did so well was because his troops could progress through merit.  In post revolutionary France, especially towards the end of the 19th century, the state began to give – schools, services, employment and a lot else.  And so it was in other countries.  In 1889 Germany became the first country to introduce a state provided old age pension.

But all this went far far beyond money, pensions, law and objective standards.  It was the overall effects of all these institutions, forging a bond between people and state, that was so important.  This was, in effect,  our entire body politic – simply our way of doing things.  It worked because people supported it, people believed in it and people trusted it because it worked – and it worked for them.  Of course it didn’t work for some minorities, even in countries where it appeared to be largely successful, notably America, but it worked well enough for long enough for the majority and as a result people gave it their support and abided by its objective rules.  They kept the law.  It is unlikely that people would have even thought in those terms, more likely they thought that that is simply the way things are – and they’re OK.  In Time magazine’s WW2 output, one of the things that comes across  in a publication surprisingly open and critical of its own government, given the scale of what was at stake, nonetheless, is a strong but unspoken belief, an accepted assumption, that the USA stands for goodness.  Everything seems to be questioned but not that.

This is now in danger of unravelling.  What happened?  Davies describes the increasing breakdown of trust  between an ever growing number of people and our wider institutions, including those of state.  What happens when once respected objective standards are no longer trusted?  What fills the void?  According to Davies, it is emotions or feelings.  Feeling is taking over the world.

How did this happen?  Where did this development begin?  Davies argues, essentially, that in effect, the state began reneging on its pact with the people.  It wasn’t planned, it just seemed to happen that way, driven by the remorseless logic of the adopted economic system, a system widely touted as being the only one possible.  In simpler terms we are subject to the logic of the market.  Put another way, the gap between the official line and people’s actual experiences began to widen.  Take for example,  some of those often trumpeted statistics about how well the economy is doing.  It might be doing very well for somebody somewhere but it isn’t doing very well for you – so you stop believing the statistics.  They don’t mean anything.  It’s a slow process.  In America, for instance, working class income which had risen steadily throughout the fifties and sixties plateaued in the seventies in real terms.  And there it stayed, some even say it has declined and that’s just not supposed to happen.  But, of course, it took a long time for all that to filter through. There’s a background feeling that your life isn’t working as well as it should and how you expected it.

Remember, the whole idea, what we were all brought up on,  was to work hard and you would be rewarded with a higher standard of living than your parents, just as it had worked for them and theirs.     This is no longer the case and no-one has taken the trouble to explain – to explain why, for instance, most young people today cannot afford to buy a house because of the revered “market”, a fact made all the more ludicrous that houses themselves are not inherently expensive to construct, as has been demonstrated in all societies over the last 10,000 years. Our political and economic structure, alas,  renders that explanation impossible. “I’m not going to tell people the value of their house has gone down” as my one time (Labour) MP told me with great indignation when I said that houses cost too much.  House prices have become the new currency; just like that £20 note, therefore it is essential for people to believe in them. That leaves an awful lot of people who are increasingly excluded by that very mechanism.  More people are required to believe in a value structure that doesn’t give them any – value, that is.  Increasingly people are learning not to trust.  They might not be sure of the details or be able to explain precisely what is happening, but they know that they are getting an increasingly raw deal.  It always seems to be the poorest who suffer most in an economic downturn, a downturn from an upturn from which they never benefited – those who never saw the boom in the first place, creating mass alienation fuelled by a simmering resentment.  This has left a large void and it’s growing.

That growing void, the void that was once filled by order, standards and trust has to be filled by something.    In that climate, that climate of unspecified and unfocused betrayal, that climate of suspicion towards official bodies and pronouncements, governments in particular, people are increasingly vulnerable to believe, in the absence of that firm anchorage they once had, anything that might offer an explanation for lives increasingly buffeted by forces over which they have no control or protection from.  They no longer trust the “facts”.  They no longer trust the MMR jab. They believe that 5G masts are spreading Covid-19, immigrants are taking their jobs and 1,001 other conspiracy theories.  It’s their feeling that count, feeling that gives them some sense of control in their own lives.  This can lead them, for example, to being sucked into scams like MLM (multi level marketing) despite the warnings “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is” – but accepting that means giving up hope.  And hope is a wonderful feeling.  It even fills the void for a while (“things can only get better”), counterbalancing its other occupants, feelings of victimhood and worryingly, feelings of identity.  This often turns into feelings of extreme nationalism.  Why, because it offers identity, simplicity  and, yes, hope, and a belief pattern that obviates awkward questions.

And of course, there are plenty of people willing to step in and fill that void, to fuel that feeling, Donald Trump and Nigel Farage to name but two, with many other fringe groups all appealing to the feeling, often denigrating the foundations of the very stability from which they prospered.  Ridiculing the civil service, for instance, is now commonplace.   And invariably there will come, if we don’t have them already, the very ruthless, the ambitious and the opportunistic who can steer the world to something very nasty in pursuit of their own agendas, as the film ‘Vice’ makes so abundantly clear – and it’s a true story as well.  Emotions, especially those untrammelled by logic, by can be a very powerful force, providing an opportunity and a mechanism for some leader willing to harness them.  Look what Hitler did with that opportunity!

There is a story, probably apocryphal, of Zhou Enlai, a Chinese diplomat under Mao, answering  a question on the effect on the course of history of the French Revolution with the line “It’s too soon to say.”  Has universal suffrage opened up a can of worms?  It looked good for a very long time, it has to be said, but for most of that time there was overall a modest and very gradual rise in prosperity.   But that is no longer the case and what we’re entering looks more permanent than a temporary downturn.  We might be here for good – stuck in a system that too many people still have a vested interest in keeping going – like house prices.  Maybe we don’t understand the deal we have created.  Hitler, let us not forget, was voted in to power.  True, he never got half the vote – but neither did any British government.

Through his powerful descriptions of the power of feeling, Davies describes something quite frightening, as almost an unstoppable force of irrationality.   Towards the end of his  book, he gives the impression that he too is afraid of what he has described and diagnosed, almost tiptoeing around a possible conclusion, like he doesn’t want to believe the logic of his own analysis.  Beating around the bush, using every caveat he can find, he coyly suggests the one sphere that would allow the ultimate flowering of emotion, its time, whatever its ludicrous irrationality, of supreme vindication, would be in war. Feeling would then have truly taken over the world.

We’ll be back to witch burning yet!

Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World

review.r2. © Stephen Kearney October 2020




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