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I just can’t get out

Article by Steve Harvey, Director Impromptu

“We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it.” 1984,
George Orwell

One of my favourite films of all time is Koyaanisqatsi. If you don’t know it, Koyaanisqatsi – or to give the full title, ‘Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance’ – is a juxtaposition of mostly time-lapsed sequences, accompanied by an insistent and evocative soundtrack scored by Philip Glass, which offers a compelling and often shocking image-commentary on the way we live, how we are bound to and seduced by the technological context that shapes the modern age.

There are various translations of the Hopi word, koyaanisqatsi: unbalanced life; crazy life; life in turmoil; life disintegrating; chaotic life. The one that strikes the most resonant (discordant) chord with me is, ‘a state of life that calls for another way of living’.

A state of life, that calls for another way of living.

The idea in these simple, redolent words has connected profoundly with me during the past few months. I have read three books that have brought the philosophy behind them into sharp focus. The first is Owen Jones’ ‘Establishment’. Set against the quintessentially right-wing ideological backdrop of neo-liberal capitalism, with cool anger, Jones persuasively depicts a British cultural context in which self-serving and self-perpetuating elites propagate asymmetries of power, where advantage (and corresponding disadvantage) are institutionalised through the coordination of ‘establishment’ mechanisms including politics, economic interest, media, criminal justice and education.

The second book, ‘This Changes Everything’, by Naomi Klein is, not without striking coincidence, set against the same post-modern orthodoxy of neo-liberal capitalism. Klein’s proposition is, however, set on the world stage and wrestles with the currently intractable problem of climate change. But not climate change, particularly, as science, or even as a survivalist imperative. With thematic symmetry to Jones’ thesis, Klein, with excoriating precision, defines a far broader and often nightmarish landscape, in which powerful conservative political elites, corporate interests, economic norms based on extractionist imperatives, and the psychology of denial, conspire to reinforce prevailing attitudes and behaviours that render environmental catastrophe a virtual inevitability.

Finally, and most recently, I encountered Professor Shoshana Zuboff’s immense polemic, ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’. Zuboff explicates a grotesque, post-Orwellian global environment in which our existence is ruthlessly exploited and increasingly orchestrated by the insidious and barely visible agenda of the tech giants (Googe, Facebook, Amazon) in what Zuboff contends is tantamount to an epochal social and economic shift. This time the extraction is data (rather than oil or gas), and the resultant asymmetries of power and capitalist perversion strike at the heart of democracy and, indeed, our humanity, presaging a scarcely perceptible, yet terrifying, post-industrial totalitarianism.

Koyaanisqatsi was made in 1982. The three books I reference, were published within the last six years, nearly 30 years later. We know that these these self-destructive forces are at play. The evidence is overwhelming. And yet we appear to carry on doing the things we know may come to devastate us.

And as I sit writing this, on an Australian beach, I am profoundly aware of my gross hypocrisy. I have travelled here to visit my eldest son. Oh, and we ‘popped over’ to New Zealand for a few days whilst we were here. And unless I am prevented from doing so, I fully intend to keep coming, at least once a year, until I am no longer physically able to board the aircraft, hoping, as so many do, that along the way, some technological miracle will mean that I can do so without destroying the planet. And I’ll continue to hit the ‘accept’ button for the terms of agreement on Amazon and Google. And I’ll sign up to 5G. And I’ll embrace the internet of things. I’ll tacitly accept the status quo. And like the majority, I’ll supress my insights, bury my fears and wait and hope for the dawn of a more inclusive, fair, balanced, equitable, truly democratic age.

And in the meantime?

It feels, most days, the prison walls are just too tall, too thick, too impermeable. It feels like, I just can’t get out.

“Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense.”
1984, George Orwell