Turning and turning in the widening gyre,
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
Yeats wrote, rather charmingly.
For a long time, that was the prevalent assumption of politics. Worry about the details, governments were told, because they add up to fundamentals. Society was all that held us up above the level of beasts and the pressure was always downwards, towards disintegration. There would be either rivers of blood or fucking in the streets. Possibly both. It was the Second Law of Thermodynamics as political theory: ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold’.
But that’s not quite what happens. Order breaks down, and yes, there is sometimes anarchy. But usually we impose our own order without the authorities needing to brush off their jackboots.
Take 1971. Interesting year, 1971. In August, Nixon announced that dollars would no longer be converted to gold at a fixed price. It doesn’t sound exciting, but it equated to the death of reality in the global financial system.
The post-war Bretton Woods system had created an obligation for countries to tie their currency to the dollar. With the dollar tied to gold, there was at least some hint of order, an anchor in choppy seas. But the Nixon Shock, as it came to be known, effectively revealed the flimsiness of the world we had established. Money was revealed for what it was: a piece of paper whose only value lay in how we felt about it. If we all believed that this was acceptable payment for a piece of candy, then great. But if anyone was to actually ask ‘what is it that this piece of paper signifies?’ the edifice would crumble.
We had moved, over hundreds of years, from a system where the unit of currency reflected a set amount of gold to a system where it meant… nothing. What was solid became fluid. All suggestion of security floated away. The utter chaos of the financial system was now laid bare for anyone to see. But nobody does see. We still use money and imbue it with value. We still accept arguments about having to make sacrifices in the name of reducing the deficit. No-one asks: why should this piece of paper be considered valuable?
The collapse of economic order mirrored changes in wider society. In June 1971, Nixon announced the War on Drugs. It is still going on now, and the government is still very much losing it. People were no longer ready to be frightened by the state’s moral pronouncements. In November of the same year, the Intel 4004, the word’s first single chip processor, was created. In a few years it would change human life so dramatically that the various methods of controlling humanity, including distance and control of information, would fall victim to its momentum. Across academia, the influence of Marxism, feminism and Black Power fell to post-structuralism, whose fashionable, Zen-like indifference to objective meaning drowned some of the greatest young radicals of the periods.
The questions that were first asked in the 60s, about power and the qualifications of those who wielded it, were answered in the 70s with the disintegration of the old structures. The 60s were just a prologue. The 70s, that most maligned of decades, saw the economic order change forever and the point where western citizens finally stopped listening to the church or state on moral matters.
To someone in the Victorian era, the disintegration of these moral authorities would have signalled the start of a disastrous sexual explosion. People shagging in the streets, wives strapping up a dildo to do the chimney sweep boy, people stopping off for a quick bukkake on the way to work – they would have predicted nasty, wonderful chaos. But look back now and the reports of the death of restraint in British society were somewhat exaggerated.
Yes, we are more likely to have affairs, to divorce, to come out as gay, to have anal sex, to trim our pubes, to master the delicate art of giving good head. But look beyond the titillating adverts on buses, the mixed-race lovers holding hands down the street, and the gay couple kissing on the corner, and the truth is: the substance of sexual relationships hasn’t changed.
In a world where most of us are ready and willing for a one-night stand, most people still enter into relationships, still get married, still buy houses – or try to buy houses – and have kids. The radicalism of the gay movement, which once challenged the status quo, is now merely a demand to be accepted within it, to marry and get a mortgage like everyone else. Like the War on Drugs, that governments have been losing for decades but have never actually lost, like the end of Bretton Woods, that wiped all meaning in the financial world only to see people’s faith in it somehow endure, we have imposed normality and consistency on ourselves.
The roles of the church and state have been trimmed down so that they are not too interfering, and then out-sourced to us in a highly efficient manner. Witness the way married people encourage others to get married, as if to vindicate their own choices. Witness the inability of men, whose eyes are wide open to other women, to bear the idea of their lover taking someone else to the bedroom. Romantic love is a modern concept, but sexual jealousy is not. It’s so un-modern it goes right down to the genetic level, as we react furiously to the idea that the genes might not stay in the gene pool.
What is it that keeps us in check when the rules have disappeared? Why do we continue to treat the financial system as something intuitive and sensible when it is plainly insane? Why aren’t we all fucking in the street, as our religious leaders so tantalisingly imagined? Because of investment. Because we are invested in the world.
When the financial crisis hit two years ago, all our dreams and debates about a more just world fell by the wayside as we stared, aghast, and thought: what’s going to happen to my house? Financial revolution means that all those mornings waking up at 6:30 AM to go to a job we hate were for nothing. We need the money from that buy-to-let place to pay the kids through university. Year zero is no good when you’re invested.
Presented with sexual freedom, we reverted back to our genetic orders, which, let’s face it, probably played a role in why those old men in the Bible originally wrote these sexual rules in the first place. One-night stands are fine, we thought, but we need companionship. We need to feel we’re not alone in the world. We need to feel there’s a story to our lives, and that the story is a rom-com where the comedy is optional. We need that companion to not go off sleeping with other people, certainly not bigger, stronger, more handsome people than ourselves. We need offspring. God knows why, but there’s this voice deep down in our cells forcing us through the door. We’re invested. We’re all signed up to the idea of monogamy and of not fucking strangers and the quite bizarre idea that what we do with our genitals has a bearing on our social lives.
If you were a conspiracy theorist you might think that investment is the way that power forces us to abide by the status quo. Actually, we abide the status quo for the same reason that it exists. Because we need to invest in the world.
Illustrations by Ike Lapinsky.