We look for convenient labels to understand the times we live in. Some commentators say we are living in ‘strange times’. What does that mean?
The phrase ‘new times’ became fashionable in the 1980s, when the journal Marxism Today tried to conceptualise the period they were living in, under Thatcher and Reagan.
There had been, they reasoned, a shift in the culture, towards neo-liberalism; away from state enterprise toward deregulating the economy.
This had consequences, in individualism and an emphasis on identity politics, at the expense of older solidarities, like class and community. For the Left, this was dangerous.
But the exploratory, experimental, Euro-communists of MT thought the socialist movement needed to adapt to this fresh zeitgeist.
At that time, for example, “designer socialism” emerged, attracted to fashion and good living, combined with a far-left politics, legitimating feminism and gay liberation,
This coalesced around another journal, New Socialist, containing excellent graphic design, glossy photographs, and attractively-dressed young people.
In electoral terms, however, this approach failed dismally, and the Labour Party under Michael Foot plummeted to disaster.
With the surprising, collapse of the USSR, the British Communist Party also dissolved. It was New Labour, under Tony Blair, which took advantage of the changes in society. This happened, however, through abandoning traditional Labour polices, accepting Thatcher’s achievements.
This was not the kind of adaption which MT, the theoretical organ of the Communist Party, had wanted! But it, arguably, represented one adaptation to ‘new times’.
‘New times’ emerged again, in the New Statesman, last September; here as shorthand for the wild changes we have seen in the last year.
This includes: Brexit, Donald Trump, as well as the continuing terrorist attacks in the West, and the West’s wars in the Middle East. But even this week, the NS returned to the phrase.
It depicts the astonishing scenario of Teresa May’s pyrrhic electoral victory; entering the election with a strong parliamentary majority, she is left with a minority government.
It also propelled Jeremy Corbyn, from ridicule to rock star status, even though, in mathematical terms, Labour lost. It was the prospect of this election which prompted the phrase ‘strange times’. The dictionary defines ‘strange’ as: “unusual or surprising; difficult to understand or explain; not previously visited, seen, or encountered; unfamiliar or alien.”
The future is, again, unpredictable, wide open. Anything is possible. Everything is to play for. Whatever our politics, a weird voluntarism emerges as the only valid guide to activism.
Perhaps our cue can come from SciFi?
Try watching apocalyptic movie “Strange days”; it depicted the end-times feeling of pre-millennial tension.
But the graphic novel, “Strange times”, goes further. Spirits from beyond, rescue hopeless human beings.
By projecting optimism to the other-worldly, this may devalue our own potentialities for action. And yet, the strangeness of these times calls for, and calls forth, the ghosts we need.
Mark Fisher’s book, “The weird and the eerie”, for example, shows how our sense of the uncanny can help us articulate and imagine hope in strange times.