peasant-wedding-1568

On Feast Days

Every year we go through the motions of telling everyone what we’re thankful for on Thanksgiving. We do it a few times a year, arbitrarily marking the subjective importance of people, events and things, on various, ostensibly different feast days. And it’s a commendable impulse, all the same: this attempt to make sense of where we have been, where we are going & most importantly, who has made it through the journey with us. I think the meaning of these arbitrary markers of time are increasingly important—real life, increasingly flattened out by pressures to conform, to define success narrowly and even to coarsen the meaning of these days, still struggles against so much banality. Perhaps in a world with fewer exigencies constantly pushing what are largely irrelevant worries to the fore of our thoughts, we wouldn’t need specific holidays to appreciate our parents, to cherish our siblings and cousins, to thank our friends for being there when we’re lost, or to remember why someone makes our heart beat just that much faster. We wouldn’t need birthdays, or anniversaries, or special days, or holidays to remind ourselves of those verities.

As with every Thanksgiving, then, I’m thankful for my family & friends—those who are still around and those who are not, but left an impact in my life regardless. And I’m thankful at the very least in my ability still to find quietude, purpose and a smile at the presence of a special person. I wish I could extend that gratitude daily.

But this year, to shake things up, I should also like to thank the little things in life. Those never get a mention. Like the taste of coffee and tea, especially in the morning. Or the sensation of sunlight on your skin on a temperate, sunny day. Or the feel of a nicely bound book between my hands. Or the sound of my cat’s purr as he curls up to sleep next to me at night. Those things too add richness, depth and meaning to life.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Anger, Walk With Me

Anger is a very misunderstood emotion.

In a political sense, anger is derided as midwife to hatred, violence and social chaos. The mainstream, modern liberal views anger–especially if it manifests itself in anything other than a prescribed, lawful and peaceful protest–as something to be avoided. Witness mainstream media appeals for people to use ‘proper channels’ and ‘rational debate’ as the primary catalysts for social transformation.

My retort to that is, there’s nothing ‘reasonable’ or ‘civilised’ about talking about the lives of the oppressed with contempt, no matter what the tone. No, my life should not be the topic of debate. No, political transformation rarely begins, or even ends, round a debate table. The tactics of the Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela are routinely twisted violently and out of context to this end, without a properly historical appreciation for events as they actually happened. [NB the recent passing of Nelson Mandela is a particularly current example of this, as the mainstream media largely ignored his membership of the South African Communist Party.]

And of course, this constant refrain in the media studiously ignores the massive role of those who thought righteous anger could and should be channeled into forceful confrontation with the powers that be.

***

On a personal level, anger also finds its uses. It can break a personal path dependency that other emotions simply cannot. Sadness, even shame, rarely force us to stare into the abyss…and pull back. On the contrary, they almost seem to coax us into it; too often, they invite us to swim in the dark waters of regret and fear, offering to drown us sweetly in a sea of shattered emotions. Obviously, sadness–and shame–have pride of place in different aspects of our life. It strikes me as facile and naive (at best) to assume that any of our emotions are value-less or inappropriate at a given time. Shame, the momentary degradation of our pride, is sometimes necessary and cathartic. But as a proximate catalyst for renewal, shame may do more harm than good.

I don’t want, however, to balance anger against sadness or shame. Those are easy emotions to bat away, especially in a culture that puts huge store in a confused denial of remorse. (To apologise profusely for one’s actions, to be ashamed of what one has done to others, is the last refuge of the scoundrel. Yet, ‘we should all be accepted for who we are, but especially when we’re ass holes,’ seems the dominant sentiment of the day.) I’m setting my sights against those who would chase down a ‘light’, or suddenly come to understand ‘love’, as an entirely selfless endeavour. Not because these aren’t nice views, or even because they can’t temporarily help someone cope with tragedy and loss. But in the long run, light is always coupled to necessary darkness; love with bitterness; and so on. Often, these emotions come together at the same time.

Nothing in the realm of man is clear-cut or perfect. We are all a bundle of imperfections, held together by seemingly contradictory emotions. Seeking purity in whatever form is a worthwhile goal, but only if we accept we’ll always fail to attain it.

So there are moments in which anger is good. Where anger–even when it makes the whole world burn, despite ourselves, even when it destroys our perfectly constructed, or perfectly planned view of life–is the only considerable source of necessary change. This is not to say that unbridled anger is always appropriate. Sometimes, it is simply destructive. But sometimes, destruction is all we have left in us. Short of indulging a lethargic stasis, an inability to progress in life at all, bringing in the new via the general destruction of the old might seem the only appropriate choice.

***

In the last few days, I’ve indulged enough anger to last me a lifetime. I recognise, in retrospect, that this caused much more harm than good. And I’ve harmed some who didn’t deserve it, even if at the time I felt no alternative.

I ought to make it right where I can, though I understand how the opportunity might now be lost to me irrevocably. Nevertheless, what I learned from setting the world alight the last few days is that things must surely change. I’ve been living my life in half-steps–moving forward at a semi-glacial pace, when not just frozen in time–for 22 months. In the one aspect of my life where things seemed to be going positively, I’ve now taken a major step backward. In others, I simply have to muster the energy to move forward.

What I might have lost in the fire, whatever my hopes and desires, might be irretrievable to me now. I hope against hope that this isn’t the case. But I know that in this one part of my life, the decision, the choice is no longer mine to make. I can’t govern others’ emotions. I can only set my stall out and hope they accept me into their life the way I want them too. Here, at least, the initiative is no longer mine. I certainly can’t sit around and hope for the best case to make itself available to me either. Frankly put, I just have to hope that confusion gives way to something more, with enough time and space. I feel I deserve it after struggling for so long. I need a reprieve.

For now, I’m indulging my sadness in one aspect of my life, until it gives way to something better. But the time for sadness in other parts of my life is now over. I’ve dozed long enough.

Brief Thoughts on Vulnerability & Change

A pretty, nice Mormon missionary stopped by our house just now. She inquired, as they have tended to do for over 20 years, about my father.

A little known fact about me (or, really, my dad) is that 22 years ago or so, he briefly became a Mormon–and dragged all of us with him. What was most interesting about that episode in our family’s life is the fact that this was an initiative on the part of my father–a lifelong atheist–at the height of what was, presumably, a midlife crisis. (He was in his early 40s then, but what did a child of 7 or 8 know what this meant in the life of a man?)

I was struck by her approach: Had I ever asked my father (she wondered) what had driven that (stupefying, bizarre and) very brief drive towards Mormonism (of all things)? Had I ever asked myself, or him, why he had gone down that particular spiritual journey?

And the answer is, No. I suppose it never struck me before to ask my father, man to a man, why he’d very briefly chosen that path. This, I realised, as the nice Mormon missionary and I chatted away (lump in my throat) was something I’d neglected to ask the most important man in my life, about what was at the time a very important part of his own.

Life changes come in, or come to be understood through, the most curious packages. For a brief moment in time, religion–and Mormonism in particular–instantiated what I take were his fears, vulnerabilities and questions about aging. My father might simply have taken a decision I’d routinely (and out of considerable, childish embarrassment) laughed off, because he had simply reached a fork in his life…and he was looking for a way forward. Only the pettiest among us–or the most immature, as I was–would begrudge him that.

In many ways–though, sans family–I feel at a similar turning point in my own life. To me this afternoon, her question was as much about my own thoughts about where I find myself going now, as it was about where my father chose to go in his two decades prior.

***

Mind, let me be clear: I’ve no plans to renounce my agnosto-atheist beliefs anytime soon! And I’m certainly not saying I’m becoming a Mormon. ;) But there are some things we should defer to and respect about the lives of others, even if they don’t mesh with our understanding of things…or our hopes and desires for them.

On the flip(pant) side, I now understand how religious evangelism works: Sometimes, people are just a damn touch vulnerable. And these, it seems to me, make the best recruits.

The Rates of Power

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Three Rates for the Wall Street-boys under the sky,

Seven for the Bund-lords in their halls of stone,

Nine for Bear Stearns traders doomed to die,

One for the Lord Mayor on his dark throne

In the Land of Mammon where the Usurers lie.

One Rate to rule them all, One Rate to find them,

One Rate to bring them all and in the darkness bind them

In the Land of Mammon where the Usurers lie.

Austerity in Europe: The End of the Affair?

‘We must stay the course of reform and avoid any loss of momentum, which could undermine the turnaround in confidence that is underway, delaying the needed upswing in growth and job creation.’ [My emphasis]

In so many words Olli Rehn–European Commissioner for Economic & Monetary Affairs and the Euro–proved that the reigning cult of self-flagellation is alive and well in Europe.

I don’t wish to knock Mr. Rehn alone for the increasing disconnect between official statements and the facts on the ground. Some, such as the Bundesbank’s Jens Weidmann and the ECB’s ex-president Jean-Claude Trichet, deserve to go down in history as arch-villains in a story resplendent with smug witch doctors and other petty peddlers of bunkum. Trichet’s particular brand of delusions holds that the plan–a double-whammy of austerity & competitiveness ‘reforms’–will work any day now, that the confidence fairy is real. Mr. Weidmann’s odious stance is that a multi-year record of misery (of which more below) won’t just work, but that it is morally right to pursue on its own terms. (A Spectre is Haunting Europe–Moral Hazard.) The self-denial of all, ‘the denial of life and of all human needs,’ might result in the impoverishment of all, but as Marx realised in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, it is easy to dress misery in ethical clothes.

What makes Mr. Rehn’s interventions rather more galling, however, is his insistence that the plan not only will work and is morally correct to pursue, but rather that it is, somehow, already working.

For a moment, financial markets found cause to believe him. On 26 July 2012, the new president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, promised the bank would do ‘everything it takes’ to save the euro. A week later, on 2 August, the ECB announced the creation of Outright Monetary Transactions–direct central bank interventions on secondary-markets to pacify distressed markets, provided recipient countries accepted strict conditionality under EU diktat. Spanish & Italian bond yields–the implied price at which governments can borrow on the open market–duly tumbled in response, as the markets dared to hope Europe might exit the crisis intact.

By Europe, of course, one means the financial markets themselves. For the peoples of Europe, however, the last six months have seen the continual evolution of a social catastrophe.

***

The Eurozone economy has been contracting since the last quarter of 2011–5 consecutive quarters (15 months) of recession–despite heroic efforts from Europe’s ‘locomotive’, Germany.

Real GDP Growth in 10 Largest West European Economies since the Great Recession

Real GDP Growth in 10 Largest West European Economies since the Great Recession

If this spectacular failure were at least mitigated by the promise of better economic performance in the near-future, then perhaps Mr. Rehn’s enthusiasm for disaster economics might make sense. But as Markit’s latest Purchasing Managers Index for the Eurozone makes plain, such optimism is misplaced–unless, of course, your only concern is the continued rude health of the German economy. For the rest, the double-dip recession goes on without end.

Markit Eurozone Output PMI, March 2013 Release

Markit Eurozone Output PMI, March 2013 Release

Whilst German and Irish PMIs signal expansion of activity in the first quarter, Spain, Italy and (dismayingly) France continue to contract:

Worryingly, the divergence between Germany and France so far this year is the widest in the 15-year survey history. Germany is on course to see the strongest quarterly growth since the spring of 2011, but France is contracting at the fastest rate for four years.
The deteriorating picture in the periphery is also a concern. Rates of decline picked up in Italy and Spain, with further weakness likely in Italy especially in coming months due to the uncertainty caused by the elections.

Much has been made of the totemic strength of the German economy–representing over a quarter of the Eurozone’s nominal output. German GDP is almost 9% higher than it was at the deepest point in its recession 4 years ago, but that mighty rebound came hot on the heels of one of the deepest recessions in the G7; its output is still but 1.4% higher than it was a full five years ago. The continued relative strength of her job market is commendable, but even that shouldn’t be overemphasised. Too much of that job growth comes from low-paid and/or precarious employment, as is becoming increasingly clear in Germany itself.

The continued weakness of France, Italy and Spain suggests that not even mighty Germany–but a relative strong swimmer in a sea of dashed recoveries–will be strong enough to pull all sinking boats. Germany’s strength continues to be outweighed by contraction in the monetary union’s next three largest economies, representing half the Eurozone’s GDP.

Policy-makers are struggling mightily to convert Europe into a Bizarro Greater Germany–a continent where Hartz-style reforms and perpetual austerity are complemented by technocratic control of fiscal policy. But to do so requires enormous political will–at the institutional, electoral and street level. And recent events suggest Europe’s élites might be losing grip of the situation.

***

The Financial Times recently reported on tensions in the Netherlands as the government there attempts to enact yet more austerity:

A €4bn package of additional austerity measures aimed at enabling the Netherlands to hit EU deficit targets in 2014 has set up a bitter clash with trade unions, after the largest labour federation attacked the cuts as “stupid and ill-advised” and the government pleaded for negotiations…Following this weekend’s mass demonstrations in Portugal and the results of Italy’s elections, the impasse in the Netherlands reflects the tensions over austerity measures that are testing the limits of European governments.

The latter points to growing concern across the continent that the social fabric of the hardest hit states is fraying. It should not be so difficult to understand how the deteriorating economic fortunes of millions–e.g. youth unemployment rates at (Spain & Greece) or approaching (Italy & Portugal) half the population, increasing poverty, growing income inequality, etc.–translates into a new Irish diaspora, or protests & violence on the streets. As David Begg, General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, has argued:

European integration has proceeded on the basis of a ‘Permissive Consensus’. European citizens thought it was a good thing, or at least did no harm. I doubt that view is still current. From what I hear in the circles in which I move, today’s labour movement is disaffected from the European project,” he said. “What will happen when people eventually realise that they are trapped in a spiral of deflation and debt. We may reach the tipping point.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, this is not what European & governing national officials see. They argue austerity is working because, well, surely it must be. But of course, this is an élite admirably tolerant of its own failures.

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Austerity and GDP growth 2011-2012 (Click for Source)

It doesn’t matter that austerity’s knock-on effects on growth–implicitly admitted to by the IMF–are exacerbating the crisis, or that by policy-makers’ own foolish metrics (an obsession with debt-to-GDP ratios) the situation is hardly getting better for distressed sovereigns.

(Click for Source)

Austerity and increases in debt-to-GDP ratios (Click for Source)

Meanwhile, unemployment is already at depression levels & climbing in Portugal, Spain and (worst of all) Greece, while Irish unemployment is mercifully stuck there. (Unemployment has hovered around 15% in Ireland for more than 3 years; this presumably is what José Manuel Barroso, European Commission president, meant when he claimed the Irish economy was ‘turning the corner.’) Italy’s unemployment rate has decoupled from the core EU states and is taking off into the stratosphere, in the midst of political chaos. Unemployment continues to inch up in Austria, Sweden, Netherlands, France; remains stable around levels of mass unemployment in Belgium and Denmark; and is falling below its pre-crisis peak in only one European country: Germany.

Latest Unemployment and Percent-Point Change since Peak

Unemployment and Percent-Point Change since Peak

The repercussions of continued stagnation and high (and in many countries, growing) unemployment can be seen in capitals across the continent. In Athens, the radical left party SYRIZA has replaced PASOK as the primary party of political opposition, as demonstrated at both of last year’s elections and recent polls putting it neck-and-neck with the governing conservatives. This is in the context of far-right thuggery, ongoing protests and violent street clashes. In Italy, the political earthquake unleashed by the rise of a populist anti-establishment party as the largest political faction in the new Chamber of Deputies means the third-largest Eurozone country is now without government, shouldering a massive debt, and with gross domestic product at year 2000 levels (and falling.) Portugal and Spain have seen increasingly epic protests against austerity, the government and injustice more broadly–with the latter even contending with an emboldened separatist movement in Catalonia.

Even the largest European states are suffering under the strain of austerity. Britain’s ruling Conservative Party is being outflanked to its right by the anti-EU, nationalist & anti-immigrant UK Independence Party, while its coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, have been struggling to remain the third force in British politics. There is little growth and real wages are falling, while gently declining unemployment signals a productivity reversal–storing economic problems for the future. Meanwhile, the French government’s policy u-turns (such as on the proposed 75% marginal income tax rate) in the context of rising unemployment has seen the president’s approval ratings tumble precipitously in less than a year in power.

The window of opportunity to avoid a truly radical backlash is closing. As history professor Mark Mazower puts it:

The response from Brussels and the creditor north to all this has been robotically unimaginative – to insist that the debtors, like the little fish in Finding Nemo, must just keep on going. And so they may – for a while…A moment of truth is surely approaching…Those preaching austerity probably do not see themselves as contributing to a crisis of democracy, but they are. The Italian elections should remind eurozone leaders to pay attention to their voters. Economic fixes have failed to staunch a political crisis that has the capacity to harm not only EU integration, but the legitimacy of the continent’s democratic order itself.

Only a few voices at the top (e.g. László Andor, François Hollande?) seem alert to the possibility they might have unleashed a process they might soon not be able to control. Many more, perhaps the majority, have finally succumbed to fear–the fear of straying from a determined path. Fearful, finally, of the unknown. And some–like Olli Rehn and Jens Weidmann–seem blissfully unaware that with each auto-da-fé they bring Europe closer to rupture.

History is unforgiving. Either Europe breaks austerity soon, or austerity will break Europe.

Labour’s ‘One Nation’ Dead-End

The British Labour Party is approaching a natural, if in any case farcical point in its 30-year turn to the right. Impelled towards the liberal-left on largely symbolic social matters in a vain effort to stake a claim to progressivism, the party remains hemmed to its right on matters economic. These narrowed ideological bounds continue to find spirited defence in the dimwitted mainstream media, and largely go unchallenged, either by ineffective unions or the members of the parliamentary party.

In the 15 years after the global recession of the 1990s–a period marked by an unprecedented, unsustainable credit-fuelled boom in the OECD, and in particular in Britain–the collective delusions of the pensée unique at least made temporary, fitful sense. These ideological blinders persist even now, in the fifth year of an apparently intractable economic crisis, the longest depression in perhaps a century.

NIESR estimates of monthly GDP since the start of the recession

Both the Leader of the Opposition and his Shadow Chancellor have argued that Labour would have to make ‘tough economic choices’–that’s public sector/welfare cuts to you and me–in order to capture and harness political power in 2015. Austerity is condemned and co-opted in the same breath. Labour still believes in the mirage of market confidence, that dimming lodestar of neoliberalism. The accumulated confusion of a 40-year counter-revolution hasn’t been swept away despite the greatest economic crisis in the capitalist core in over 80 years.

Labour’s increasingly regressive pronouncements in relation to welfare follow over two years of spending cuts gleefully pursued by the Coalition Government. Failing to deliver a credible alternative to these self-defeating policies, Labour’s pantomime internal battles follow the same script they have for decades. The discontent at the lack of direction in the party (or outright capitulation to the right) usually bubbles underneath the surface among party activists until, in a fit of gall, Labour’s union ‘paymasters’ launch blistering attacks on the party they created. The parliamentary party, in turn, take these criticisms in stride before pushing forward towards ever closer union with the Conservative party. The past is prologue.

The UK is therefore set to be governed for most of the rest of this decade by a tripartite consensus, that austerity is ‘necessary’ in the teeth of a stagnant economy which will remain below its pre-crisis economic peak (measured by GDP on a per capita basis) until 2018. This dismal lost decade makes Japan’s crisis in the 1990s look enviable by comparison.

It is in this context that we must understand a document which may come to define Ed Miliband’s stewardship of the party: One Nation Labour – Debating the Future. A desultory attempt at analysis of the party’s future prospects and direction, the pamphlet is part of a wider Policy Review spearheaded by three ominous-sounding committees of the shadow cabinet: One Nation Economy, One Nation Society and One Nation Politics. Yes, a shudder is in order.

The pamphlet is the brainchild of Jon ‘Labour luminary’ Cruddas, whose introduction lays the groundwork for the dead intellectual marshes to come. Witness his fourth principle of a One Nation politics:

‘…it is a politics of being together. The traditional phrases were solidarity and fraternity but neither work well for the changes in our country. Solidarity calls upon an underlying shared identity which no longer has the same broad reach in our post industrial, plural and diverse society. Fraternity in contrast does emphasise a diversity amongst equals but it is a sentiment that excludes the political relationship between men and women and between women. The politics of togetherness is a way of talking about the ‘we’ while holding to the uniqueness of each individual. It emphasises how our individual freedom is secured by the equality of constraint we share. ‘

You’re not alone in thinking that entire paragraph is either muddled or presumptuous, or is perhaps just filler. It’s most likely all of these things. Is this the sort of brilliant yarn David Skelton praised when he called Cruddas ‘one of the most interesting thinkers in British politics today’?

Most of the rest of the pamphlet reads like the crudest stab at the basest instincts of Home Counties England. Examples abound. Tristram Hunt’s opening salvo is a dreary recap and defence of Disraeli’s One Nation conservative tradition. You’d be excused for mistaking this for an Andrew Tyrie apologia in the Spectator. About half-way through the pamphlet we find Phillip Blond (yes, that one) talking about a ‘capitalism that benefits all’–a pathetic incoherence. (Put flippantly: are we to believe social ‘mobility’ only has one direction; that it did even at the height of the post-war boom?)

Darker musings lurk behind every corner. Mary Creagh’s contribution appeals to the UKIP voter in all of us (‘A green and pleasant land’) while John Denham’s piece, ‘The progressive national state’, talks about a ‘patriotic economy’ (huh?) in which a ‘progressive patriotic welfare state must reflect contribution and earned entitlement.’ (That’s the end of the post-war welfare state as we know it, then, couched in the most ridiculous, nationalist bluster.)

We come to our stride with Lord Maurice Glasman’s truly bizarre twist to the proceedings. Before seemingly dividing the economy into ‘the workforce, along with [the public sector’s?] funders and users’ he indulges himself in an exceptional piece of liberal apologetics (the rich needn’t fear us, we just want ‘recognition’ from you!) which deserves to be quoted at length:

With the emergence of One Nation however, the organising concept has been established. It commits Labour to a politics of the Common Good. In all areas of policy, estranged and divided parts of our Nation: capital and labour, north and south, immigrants and locals, men and women, secular and religious need to be brought together in order to generate greater value. It is different from what went before because no one interest dominates civic, political or economic life but all of these require people to come together and make things better.

Labour was founded in order to demand recognition by those who worked, as part of one nation. There was no wish to dominate but to remind the rich and the powerful that workers were part of the nation, that they had interests and considered themselves a necessary part of the common good. That argument needs to be made again, for one of the things that is different about the One Nation position is its recognition of labour as a source of value, the Labour theory of value

If you find vague echoes of Benito Mussolini’s ‘The Doctrine of Fascism’ in this eerily insistent babble of undefined or appropriated terminology and infantile platitudes, you’re certainly not alone.

***

So what is going on here? Perry Anderson once famously described Labourism (‘Origins of the Present Crisis’, New Left Review I/23, January-February 1964) as that ‘most stolid and mundane of political movements.’ Much of what he had to say in that withering attack against Britain’s national culture–about its conservatism, its institutional inertia–finds discomforting echoes in Cruddas’ pamphlet. Its analysis is shoddy when not incomplete; its message, ‘radical and conservative,’ bereft of any proposals resembling root-and-branch reform of the British state. (With, if one gives Anderson’s heavily criticised analysis the benefit of the doubt, profoundly arresting effects on the UK’s economic development.)

No indeed; this pamphlet is one of the clearest indications ever of the Labour Party’s increasing inability, or desire to do much at all that might seem radical in a leftist direction. On the contrary, it anchors the party on the conservative right–an odd whiff of Little England imagery here, a touch of the National Common Patriotic Will there. Coherence is an absent friend; for better or worse, Cameron’s smash and grab of the public sector makes a heck of a lot more sense than the atavistic nonsense caked on large swathes of this manifesto.

Instead of proposing a way out of crisis and terminal (sometimes gentle, sometimes not) relative decline, this pamphlet reads like a final, vulgar capitulation to the inevitable. This is no promise of an elegant or dignified decline, mind; quite the opposite. Grasping at totems, cloaked in the shabbiest, dodgiest cultural rags: Is this all that’s left of Britain’s ‘democratic socialist’ party?

Post-Script 2012: A Personal Statement on Precarity

When I finally board my flight from London to Los Angeles later this month, I’ll have completed a decade-long journey of sorts. I’ve spent the better part of the last 10 years ensconced in Europe, after a 3-4-year long stint in New England, routine trips back to California, and a brief sojourn in South America. University and employment structured the vast majority of my experiences in this time–with a difficult intermission 5 years ago–and they have shaped my worldview, personality and predilections accordingly.

This latest move, with its logistical nightmares, isn’t a new experience, then. It’s part and parcel of my story the last 10 years–the constant moving around; the transportation of my possessions and person, in boxes and bags and planes, across a few thousand miles. In some ways, it’ll be one more roll of an all-too familiar pair of dice. It’s been an admittedly charmed and privileged decade–not always easy (hardly so, in fact) but almost always exciting. Privilege, of course–or at least a certain kind of privilege–comes with its own drawbacks. For a kid who’s not had everything in life, but one blessed by random chance and hard-working parents, I’ve not had so much to complain about. I’ve ‘lived’ more than most, and feel I’ve genuinely learned from these experiences. That progress of sorts creates in turn a series of expectations–that things, even if they don’t always get better, might at least turn that bit more interesting; perhaps new opportunities will present themselves, maybe even in a new language or environment.

Yet, where my past has good memories to commend it–the future, never realisable, I anticipate mostly with a mix of dread and indifference–my present is defined by a singular banality–a cæsura in the progress of my life. 2012 has been a torrid year. A few hefty personal & social snags dominated the first half of the year; the second half has seen the final, precipitious decline in my material conditions. I have been rendered unemployed. I am an immigrant whose presence in the United Kingdom is, in one swift stroke, no longer tenable. I am financially in as parlous a position as one could be–with eye-watering debts–and there’s little prospect of that changing any time soon. As a consequence, I’ve eaten less well than I should have, my health has been so-so, my sleep patterns are ungovernable, and my confidence (emotional, intellectual, social, sexual) has taken a monumental battering.

The latter half of this year has been one long and dreary attempt to keep ‘the basics’–a roof over my head, food on the table, a mild set of amusements to sustain my moods–trickling in. Some of you (though I don’t know who, really) might be amazed to know just how financially exacting London is, even for the most savvy saver. I was never much of the latter, and since 2011 I have found it well-nigh impossible to save anyway: I’ve been paying off my (second) degree, among other things, since the spring of last year. I would have been sorted out on this front by this July, had the news of my present unemployment (and the concomitant need to save for the transition between having and not-having a wage) not intervened.

Life is full of cruel jokes. Had I not lost my job, I would have (ironically) been in the position to change career paths, as I’d long planned, this autumn–and done so from a position of strength. The best laid plans have a funny way of becoming unstuck.

For a variety of reasons family have not been able to step-in to help me to anywhere near the degree of assistance I’ve required to keep the show on the road. I’m returning to Los Angeles precisely because I don’t have the money, job, or legal status to live the life I’ve lived here, in London, for the past 6 years. For an educated, not-so-dim, decently-travelled and sometimes optimistic man–one rather fond of this cantelevering, grimy, exhausting, exciting city I call home–this Present is neither edifying nor illuminating. It just is, grimly.

***

Awareness of one’s precarious condition is subjective, even if the conditions shaping that precarity are objective. In a few concrete ways, my present travails are very much tied to the global events of the last 4 years. I’m still paying for my degree here in the UK thanks in large part to the Great Financial Crisis. I was unable, thanks to the global credit crunch, to secure anything like the student loan money I needed to pay off both my living expenses and my degree during my third and final year at uni. I was initially rejected for funding even my second-year, in the immediate aftermath of Lehman Brothers, at the beginning of the Autumn 2008. I was able to secure most (though not all) of what I needed then, though in the follow-up crisis a year later I failed to get even half of that amount. The credit crunch wasn’t an abstract event for me.

I spent three rewarding years (July 2009 onward) working for a start-up company. Less rewarding was my (American) employer’s attempt to swim against the tide of recession, austerity and a tenuous economic environment, as it attempted to expand its client base in the UK. Last year, the company was bought-out by a large fund–and I received my first scare employment-wise, as the parent-company decided swingeing cuts were necessary. My job and skills were spared then. I planned an exit strategy tied to paying off my degree and searching for a new career path. I accelerated the payment timetable for my degree to allow me to save-up cash–the centrepiece of this plan. If timing is everything, I’ve been well and truly played.

I first moved to London (not my first time living in the UK; I lived in Edinburgh in 2004-2005) at the height of the economic boom. Immigration of ‘economically-desirous’ migrants was still encouraged officially, though the issue was slowly worming its way into the public consciousness, thanks to the tireless efforts of the tabloid press. As the Great Recession got underway, the mood quickly changed. One telling example, which I’ve told a few times since: my sister (also studying at the time) and I endured the spectacle of an English plumber complaining about foreigners stealing British jobs. (Thanks, Gordon Brown.) When I noted that he was speaking to two immigrants, he responded that we were ‘different.’ Presumably, he meant that because we were Americans. He probably assumed, correctly, that we were students–perhaps not that I was employed.

Since the formation of the Coalition Government in 2010 the hardened public atmosphere with respect to immigration has found expression in government policy. Despite living here for more than five years, I’m not eligible for indefinite leave to remain. I’ve had a slew of job offers in the last few months, two of which fell by the wayside under frustrating circumstances, the rest quickly being withdrawn when they realised I needed a new visa. I never applied for a post-study work visa (I wasn’t eligible initially, thanks to that degree fiasco mentioned earlier) and as of last year I couldn’t apply for one anyway–it was abolished by the present government. Short of me finding a job offering sponsorship, in the context of government efforts to reduce net migration, switching into a new visa category was never going to be easy.

In a very real sense, my options have been steadily closed-off by the sort-of policies or events routinely reported in the news, but which many of us often (understandably) consider exogenous to our day-to-day life. Sometimes, however, one’s life instantiates the bulletins on the 10 o’clock news, or the special panels on Newsnight, or the heated topic of debate on Question Time. Yours is then a differently-precarious condition: your life finds resonance in those stories usually experienced at arms-length, at the reader’s disinterested remove from the human stories under-girding the printed word. The awareness that you are not alone in your endeavour–I have a few North American friends here who’ve either just clung on or finally succumbed to the inevitable on the immigration front, for example–is hardly reassuring.

I’ve always been somewhat moody, swinging between stormy emotions, but I’ve usually been redeemed by an odd sort-of optimism–or perhaps, a positive fatalism. As bad as things are, they can always get worse; life sucks for large stretches, after all, so just get over it and move on. Yet, depression, even mild depression, has a way of undoing or overturning our most positive and motivating instincts. Sure, maybe depression is, in the end, but a consequence of a chemical imbalance in the brain. Those, its proximate causes. But I don’t find it coincidental that my current, mild, if obstinate depression has paralleled a very real social low. To put it crassly, the outside world has intervened all too brutally in my daily life.

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Depression manifests itself with its own peculiar, sequential flare.

During the day, the unceasing banal demands of life drag me out of bed (late), to scrounge around half-heartedly for food, not immediately motivated to shower and gret dressed and get out the door. I eventually recall things are shit, and embark on an increasingly cack-handed journey towards new employment (…and, in a telling example of the determinative power of the wage-labour relationship in a modern capitalist society, a new sense of purpose in life.) Even if I could fall back on state benefits of any sort, here or in the United States, I don’t know how I or anyone could ever consider and/or portray such a state of affairs as anything but grim and thwarting. You continue through the motions, hands tied behind your back, because you must–proceed to Go, forget the $200–but there’s little satisfaction in the inexorable; my present horizon, so to speak.

By night, the subdued, tightly-compressed despair unwinds in a jittery, if intellectually numbing, sleep-depriving stasis. It’s the psychological mirror of a cocktail of opiates and uppers. Insomnia–that most faithful if least forgiving of mistresses–keeps me glued to the web, the television, anything other than my pillow. This rambling blog post is a consequence of such sleep delayed. Fortunately, I don’t need to drink or smoke to wallow or forget; I have other playthings to push me along–not exactly backward, unquestionably not decisively forward. To borrow liberally from Cyril Connolly’s description of postwar British austerity, ‘Here the ego is at half-pressure…’ That description usually fits the bill, until, where by chance at the weekend I find myself just a bit inebriated, the floodgates become injudiciously loosened. Then I experience release fully, in all its spluttering, blubbering, pathetic lack of glory. Behind the four walls of my room, I ‘allow’ dignity to implode into indignity; joy, into sadness; and most importantly, for perhaps the first time in my adult life, a degree of pride to dissolve into shame.

Life, of course, goes on. I’m fortunate enough to have a home to return to, a family to have me back. I have this lingering conviction (though only lingering, hardly irrepressible) that things should get better. I also know that I am luckier than many in the West, far more so than most in the developing world. This is barely comforting–how can one be comforted by the greater indignities, to any degree, suffered by others?

This evening–now, at the cusp of a move I’m shattered to have to undertake, in circumstances now entirely out of my control–that ‘comfort’ is less impressive still. It’s as though I’ve been spat back out by Life, shot back to where I started as a teenager.

Tonight, this morning, I feel I’ve wasted the last 10 years of my life.