Whatever we expected from this Coalition government, it was not Maoism. But a string of articles over the last few days has sought to portray the government as run by cultural revolutionaries, intent on unleashing waves of chaotic change across society. The BBC has its tongue in its cheek, but it's a shame to see journalists like Andrew Rawnsley and Steve Richards take so much of this at face value. As Nick Pearce says, surely the question of radicalism can only be answered once the change has taken place and the policies have actually been introduced. Cameron and Clegg's political trolleyology means that they appear to have forgotten how slowly social change occurs; maybe they've been experiencing envy at the sight of SWP hoodies smashing their way into the Treasury, and want to experience something of that same pointless head-rush.
The remarks that appear to have inspired this are Nick Boles's celebration of 'chaos', and Steve Hilton's demand that "Everything must have changed by 2015. Everything." Hilton can at least claim the Maoist credential of being unelected.
The Hilton quote is especially perplexing. I can't quite imagine Tony Blair having said this, certainly not in the early years of his government. Blair's claims that he 'always wished he'd gone further', with everything he did, were reflections made after his period of office. That aspect of Blairism is deeply problematic, but one can at least say in Blair's defence that he was comparing what did happen with what he'd like to have happened. It is a statement of regret, albeit one which smacks of frustrated megalomania.
Hilton's remark is made at the beginning of a period of office, by an unelected individual associated with a specific political leader (as opposed to a party) who has never won a General Election. If Blair was assessing something empirical and constitutionally legitimate (policies developed over 10 years, by a very successful political leader of a party that won two landslide elections), Hilton is simply screaming into the future about revolution that has no plausible benchmark of success. "Everything must have changed by 2015. Everything". What Hilton doesn't appreciate is that when one sets 'everything' as a goal, by comparison finite reality looks like nothing. This is bipolar, manic politics.
I recently read Alain Ehrenberg's The Weariness of the Self: Diagnosing the History of Depression in the Contemporary Age, which is the best piece of contemporary sociology I've read in some time. Ehrenberg explains his thesis as follows:
Depression began its ascent [in the 1960s] when the disciplinary model for behaviours, the rules of authority and observance of taboos that gave social classes as well as both sexes a specific destiny, broke against norms that invited us to undertake personal initiative by enjoining us to be ourselves. These new norms brought with them a sense that the responsibility for our existence lies not only within us but also within the collective between-us. I try here to demonstrate that depression is the opposite of this paradigm. Depression presents itself as an illness of responsibility in which the dominant feeling is that of failure. The depressed individual is unable to measure up; he is tired of having to become himself.
Where psychoanalysis was invented to tackle a specific problem of conflict within the self - guilt, shame, repression, neurosis - the defining malaise of post-68 culture is less of conflict, and more of deflation and performance anxiety. The post-68 individual has no external benchmark of what a good life should look like, because they've been enjoined to define this for themselves. The result is a paradoxical combination of narcissism and depression, whereby the individual projects an omnipotent ideal of who they truly are, but (like any ideal) one which their actions are never able to match. The result is an experience of collapse.
It's with this in mind that I pose the question: is Steve Hilton suffering from depressive narcissism? Tony Blair had measures that he set out to be judged by, largely oriented around public service reform, social liberalism and economic competitiveness. Yes, he projected a compulsive 'modernisation' ideal, but really this was just the Thatcherite commitment to making public life a bit more business-like. Labour's famous 'pledge card' looks quaint - and mentally contented - in comparison to these apparent Maoists. Hilton's comments smack of an unattainable ego ideal. How can everything possibly change?
Ehrenberg's book ends with the sad recognition that Prozac has prevented neo-liberal society from truly confronting its dominant pathology. Depression lacks any clear definition; it simply means the experience of inadequacy, or alternatively, anything that can be treated with anti-depressants. A psychoanalytic or political critique of contemporary neo-liberal narcissism would challenge the dominance of ego ideals over individuals and society, reject the Seb Coes, the endless testing of children and morality of Premiership footballers. Ironically, to do so might be in the best tradition of conservatism.