Writing about Europe just before it descended into the barbarism of the First World War, Eric Hobsbawm came up with a nonchalant sentence that any historian would have killed to have thought of first: “Why brilliant fashion designers, a notoriously non-analytic breed, sometimes succeed in anticipating the shape of things to come better than professional predictors, is one of the most obscure questions in history.”
Hobsbawm meant that if a European citizen had listened to official society he would have still heard confident voices proclaiming the superiority of European civilisation. Right up to the moment of its collapse into war, Communism and fascism, politicians talked about peace and prosperity, and establishment intellectuals assured their readers that progress would continue its steady march. If the citizen had turned to the arts in early 1914, however, he would have found an intimation of the chaos to come. Expressionism, Futurism, atonality, Cubism and all the other revolutions in style, form and taste foretold a disorientating future in which the old rules no longer applied.
The function of the artist as canary in the coalmine has long gone. It is unlikely that any historian will look to the arts of the first decade of the 21st century to find warnings of the economic collapse of the West.
I wrote in Standpoint, just after the crash of 2008, how revealing it was that the BBC drama department had to revive Little Dorrit because no modern writer had matched or thought of matching Dickens’s dramatisation of a Ponzi scheme in operation. In Britain, and to a lesser extent America, novelists, dramatists and artists of all kinds failed even to glance at the riotous spectacle of high finance which was about to explode on their doorstep.
It is not that the long boom of 1992 to 2008 was characterised by bourgeois complacency or a servile respect for authority. The paranoid style, established after Watergate, dominated drama. One only had to see a CEO or chief of police walk on to a set to know that the hero would unmask him as the villain in the closing scenes.
So desperate did writers become to find new ways to show the evil of authority, that earlier this year BBC Two showed in apparent seriousness The Shadow Line, a thriller whose psychopathic, all-controlling villain was a rogue MI5 officer running drugs to fund . . . a police pension scheme. The far superior Bourne trilogy makes my point for me almost as well. The most successful thrillers of recent years starred a heroic American agent who was not fighting radical Islam or an enemy government but a sinister clique within his own CIA.
Writers imagined every kind of powerful person presiding over every kind of disaster, except powerful bankers presiding over a financial disaster or the leaders of the European Union presiding over an economic one. As with the City, the EU was simply not a subject they thought about. Dystopian writing about Europe followed the pattern set by J.G. Ballard. Rich, hedonistic and safe, Europe was too contented for its own good. Its bored inhabitants would yearn for violent thrills to escape from the tedium of the social democratic paradise the worthy bureaucrats had built. Hardly any artist realised that the worthy bureaucrats were more delirious than any transgressive thrill-seeker, or guessed that their dull dreams of a single currency would lead the continent to ruin.
I am not saying that artists should have prophesied the breakdown in the eurozone any more than they should have predicted a liquidity freeze in the banking system. Imaginative writers are not forecasters, nor should they try to be. In the past, however, they possessed a nose for trouble: an instinctive understanding that, to use John Stuart Mill’s words, “ages are no more infallible than individuals,” and that opinions and institutions virtually everyone supports will seem as absurd to the future as those of the past seem absurd to us.
Let me use the example of a television drama the BBC ran a few years ago to explain what I mean. It featured an ageing Baader-Meinhof terrorist who began a bombing campaign against American bases in Germany. The hero discovered that she was not being controlled by a hard-Left criminal mastermind but by British army officers. They reasoned that if US forces were under attack, American pride would stop its leaders acting like cowards and pulling their troops out of Europe. America had to stay, one explained, because the notion that Britain should depend for its security on co-operation with the French was intolerable.
The author did not predict the failure of the single currency, but his drama stayed in my mind because he had hit on a dramatically plausible and under-explored idea. Contrary to the arguments of europhiles and eurosceptics alike, the EU was not a “superstate” or any kind of state. It lacked the strength and determination of a traditional nation and no one could rely on it to act with the necessary firmness in a war or, as we are seeing daily, an economic crisis.
Attempts to explain the failure of the arts to sense the stresses of our time risk degenerating into cultural theory. The Modernist movement, whose emergence Hobsbawm described, inculcated the notion that politics, foreign policy, war, business, money and work were not fit subjects for respectable artists. That prejudice still persists. Meanwhile the controllers of corporate popular culture, who once allowed exuberant variety, only wanted juvenile action adventures and crime stories.
Surely, however, we should apply Occam’s razor and say that the simplest explanation is the best. The boom lasted so long that artists, like economists, bankers, politicians and journalists, came to believe that the exceptional was the norm. The hubris behind ruinous levels of personal debt, the generous welfare payments, the bankers making more in a couple of years than their predecessors made in a lifetime, and the utopian dream of European unity ought to have brought nemesis. But for years nemesis never arrived and those who might have explored the tensions fell silent for fear of looking ridiculous.
Now they look truly ridiculous and we must cope with a crisis that virtually no one saw coming. Unprepared, and still in thrall to a belief that we can return to a world we have lost, we will not, I think, cope well.