A few weeks ago, my father suggested that I watch a new and exciting poli-sci-fi programme on BBC called Years and Years. ‘Political sci-fi,’ I replied, ‘count me in, what’s the worst that could happen?’…Here’s a three-and-a-half-thousand word rant about the programme’s crude understanding of ideology.
Sci-Fi and Ideology
As a genre, science fiction is particularly interesting in terms of ideology. While other forms of fiction try to make sense of past and present ideological contours of society, sci-fi is often engaged in a more predictive or anticipatory process. In particular, stories that remain rooted to this planet and its future trajectory are illustrative of ideological hopes and anxieties. This form of sci-fi is framed as a discourse on where our world is heading, what our future politics will look like, and, in many instances, as a warning; a flashing red light that yells ‘this is where we’re going if we don’t do something now’. For instance, in 1984 Orwell is shouting ‘this what will happen if we don’t sort this Soviet Communism shit out!’ There are, of course, subtler explorations: for example, the various ways in which Charlie Brooker discusses the future relationships between politics, society and technology in his Black Mirror series, or Christopher Nolan’s neo-colonial response to the threat of climate change in the film Interstellar. In this respect, Years and Years offers an intriguing concept. Beginning in 2019, during the course of six episodes the programme plots the course of British politics and society over the next 15 years through the eyes of one Manchester family: the Lyons’s *OMG like the British emblem the Lion but spelled differently*. What makes this concept interesting is that it serves as a direct attempt to predict the direction and impact of the current volatile political climate.
Years and Years, however, is not intended to be a ‘scientific’ or ‘accurate’ prediction of what will happen. Rather, as the creator, Russell T. Davies, suggests, this is a story about where he thinks British society is ‘sliding’.[i] As such, the programme is an exercise in ideological reasoning – a story premised upon a particular ideological interpretation of how our present political context will evolve. In fact, as will become clear by the end of this blog, it is also intended to be a call to action – this is where society is heading, and this is what you need to do to stop it.
The story begins in present day Britain, racked with Brexit, Trump, and socio-political divisions. It quickly accelerates time, quite literally, speed running through the months as Britain becomes more right-wing, more hostile to migrants, and so on. The rest of the world follows suit with Trump’s USA escalating its trade conflict with China, the right rising in Europe, and Russia becoming a Putin puppet state. In other words, the series presents the world as rapidly sliding into authoritarianism, primarily far-right, but sometimes far-left. The ideological message is relatively consistent throughout – ideological extremes are dangerous and lead to authoritarian politics. The British figurehead of authoritarianism is Viv Rook, a working class far-right personality who ‘tells it like it is’ played by Emma Thompson. Over the course of 15 years Rook rises from a marginal joke politician to the de-facto ruler of the UK. Although there are numerous problems with this character arc, not to mention that thousands of Viv Rooks already exist with minimal mainstream impact, this is not the point. Rook is designed to serve as a vehicle for Davies’s underlying ideological argument. Nonetheless, unpacking Viv’s story, and that of the Lyons family highlights a deficiency in ideological understanding exemplary of contemporary centrism.
Centrism and Ideology
When introducing centrism to students, I describe it as the ideological position par excellence. Whereas ideology generally has to be presented as a clear worldview – i.e. following the principles of this ideological position can bring about this type of society – centrism, in contrast, frames ideology in terms of the world views it seeks to temper. Centrism warns against the dangers of left and right wing ideology, positioning itself as the only solution to these threats. As such, centrism constructs a political landscape in which it is always already the rational and logical choice; its framing alone proves it right. This type of centrist framing is, perhaps, best encapsulated by Jean-Pierre Faye’s increasingly popular ‘Horseshoe Theory’.[ii] Faye argues that ideology is like a horseshoe, and that extremists on the left and right of the political spectrum have more ideological similarities than differences. In fact, this theory is directly explained to the Years and Years audience by a character discussing why a far-left military coup has just overthrown Spain’s socialist government. There is no indication of any research into, or understanding of, Spanish politics.[iii] Rather, the scenario is concocted specifically to frame ideology in this way – it’s not about left or right, all diversions from the rational centre risk leading to authoritarianism. Years and Years firmly commits to this horseshoed framing of ideology. Extremism is depicted in terms of brief flirtations with dangerous ideologies that eventually revert back to the stable centre ground. Not only does this demonstrate a lack of understanding in regard to different ways in which left and right ideologies function, it also highlights a staggering lack of reflection on centrism itself. For example, a key thread in the programme is the erosion of migrant rights – depicted as a consequence of authoritarianism. Yet the questioning of migrant rights, and particularly the attempt to conceptualise migrants in terms of their economic value, has been a key aspect of centrist politics since the 90s. In many respects, Davies absolves centrist politics of any responsibility for the current political context, and then offers it as the only solution for problems it helped create.
The guiding argument throughout the programme is that path the Western World[iv] is heading toward authoritarianism. Rook, for all intents and purposes, is a McGuffin. A character that exists solely as a means to project authoritarianism onto a British canvas. Rook’s career begins when she says a rude word on the telly – broadly that she doesn’t give a shit about bad things happening to people in other countries, and that the UK should revoke its international aid programme. In the context of the programme this is presented as some radical, unprecedented thing that shocks the nation. In other words, it ignores an existing reality in which people already say rude words on the telly, and have made variations on this argument on multiple national and international platforms[v]. As such, it fails to grapple with the reasons why similar sentiments expressed by real world Viv Rooks (Tommy Robinson, Candace Owens, et al) have not had broad mainstream impact. Or fails to explain why Viv, and not some already established far-right figure with an existing electoral infrastructure, capitalised on the national mood. After a failed election attempt, Rook’s Four Star Party exploit an economic crash to first gain a decisive role in parliament, and then a substantial majority. There is no analysis of why this happened, or any clear awareness of the workings of British parliamentary politics. This is simply what Davies needs to happen to get to his primary goal, an authoritarian Britain. In turn, the public are depicted as fickle political idiots. Even his central characters. For instance, Jessica Hynes’s character, Edith, starts the story as a renowned left-wing author and activist, but within two episodes she loves Viv because she’s going to smash the system. In this respect, Davies infantilises left-wing politics: it’s not about offering a clear and necessary alternative to late-stage capitalism, it’s about smashing the system man! This ties into a prominent theme in online centrism, and the scorn it holds young left-wing political active people – they’re stupid, easily duped, and should listen to the rational centrist grownups. As such, there is no real explanation as to why and how Rook comes to power. There are some allusions to Russian influence[vi], and the conclusion implies that Rook is just a piece in a bigger game *OMG Rook! Like the chess piece*. But the aim isn’t to understand how authoritarianism might actually come to power in the UK. The aim is for authoritarianism to come to power so that Davies and his team can bolster their broader ideological argument about where British politics is heading.
Davies might not be interested in understanding how authoritarianism could come to power, but he is very interested in warning us about what it could do once in power. The primary instruments of Rook’s UK are hard borders (external and internal), heavy handed policing, intensified surveillance, and concentration camps. This isn’t a gradual roll out either, within a year of her primacy, Rook has gone straight to the camp. In one scene she even boasts to a group of shady backers that concentration camps are a British innovation, but we never heard of them because they worked[vii]. Obviously, the camps are secret, and the public isn’t aware of their existence. The authoritarian policies highlighted by Davies are not farfetched. In many respects, they are extreme versions of existing British policies. Instead, what is problematic is that Years and Years presents Rook’s fascism as a distinct break with the existing democratic system. For instance, Rook quickly disbands the BBC to ensure that her media network controls the flow of information. One day you have democracy, next you have authoritarianism. What this depiction crucially ignores is the ways in which authoritarian politics has evolved over the last few decades. While Davies’s central argument is that the Western political trajectory is headed to authoritarian politics, it is more accurately described as heading back to 1930s authoritarianism with a few technological advancements. To paraphrase Twin Peaks, that fascism you like is back in style. Again, this is illustrative of the programme’s ideological shallowness. It depicts ideology as some sort of stable construct applied to different times and contexts. This neglects the evolutionary nature of ideological positions and arguments and, more importantly, the subtle ways in which contemporary authoritarianism incorporates itself within existing democratic frameworks. Analysing the Trump Administration in the US, or Bolsonaro in Brazil, or Netanyahu in Israel, or even Putin in Russia underscores that Viv Rook’s politics and policies can be, to a certain extent, compatible with existing democratic structures. For instance, when Trump put an end to press briefings to reduce public exposure to criticism of his policies, this didn’t require the abolition of the media. Trump and Putin might have a joke about getting rid of journalists[viii], but know that their position is made stronger by maintaining the visible trappings of a functioning democratic system. By depicting authoritarianism in its 20th century guise, Years and Years sanitises real world authoritarian influenced policies. It fails to engage with the subtle and sophisticated nature of contemporary far-right politics and presents us with a shallow caricature. This caricature undoubtedly leads people to think, ‘that’s like Trump, or Farage, or Putin’. However, it is also unlike real-world quasi-authoritarianism because what we are seeing today is a new ideological terrain. It is not a return to the 1930s, it is an ideology that has learned lessons failures from its prior failures and refined itself accordingly.
Technology as Ideology
The most interesting aspect of Charlie Brooker’s long standing sc-fi anthology, Black Mirror, is the relationship he maps between technology and ideology. In Brooker’s work (including the fantastic Nathan Barley), technology is never politically neutral. Its forms and purposes are always a direct extension of the political context in which the particular story is set. In doing this, Brooker is directly challenging the linear progressive notion of technological evolution.
Technology isn’t just something that materialises when humans have ideas and the available skills/equipment to bring these ideas into realty. Instead, technology is something that evolves in tandem with the ideological desires of society and, in particular, the desires of those in positions of power and privilege. I mention Black Mirror because the technological evolutions and plot points introduced in Years and Years borrow heavily from Brooker’s ideas. In some instances, the technology is an obvious caricature of specific Black Mirror episodes. For example, the depiction of digitised consciousness in Years and Years is, crudely, lifted from the ‘San Junipero’ episode, minus the beauty and emotional resonance of Brooker’s work. However, the key difference is that Years and Years predominantly presents technology as ideological neutral – technology that can be put to good or bad uses, but does not arise due to particular economic, social, or political desires. Despite depicting a world rife with political, social and economic crises, technological evolution just seems to trundle along. In many respects, technology is used as a temporal framing device, a visual cue designed to remind the audience that some time has passed. Yet there is no ideological rhyme or reason to the technologies. While some ideas, like wifi technology built into walls of houses, fits with the authoritarian context, it is difficult to see why this society would fund research into synthetic food substances. Rather, it seems like a hodgepodge of ideas thrown at the viewer to continually remind them that this is the future. The problems really start when technology becomes pivotal to the central plot. Particularly in terms of the role played by Lydia West’s character Bethany. Bethany is primarily used as a device to discuss transhumanism, and the fusion of internet technology with people. The climax of this is when Bethany gains governmental funding to undergo a procedure to bring her fully online and integrate her biological system with internet technology. Through this, Bethany becomes something of an omnipotent force with the ability to circumvent every computer system, and place any person using such technology under surveillance. In principle, this works as a technology that could be produced under an authoritarian system. However, it also appears that Bethany has full license to use her powers unchecked and unsupervised. In this respect, Davies presents us with an authoritarian government that endows a member of the public with enormous power and capability, and then just lets them do as they wish. It doesn’t make any ideological sense, and simply serves as a means to advance the plot trajectory that Davies wants to take us on. The characterisation of technology is brought to a head in the culmination of the main storyline. The Lyons family, with the help of Bethany’s superpowers and a handy rocket launcher, gain access to a concentration camp, disable a signal blocking tower, and stream video of the camp to the world. Rook’s authoritarian regime falls immediately, and we are left with a pithy message about technology: like, um, yeah, technology can be like bad and stuff, but we can also like totally use it for good things too. Technology retains a neutral de-ideologised position, a tool that can be used for good or ill that is almost entirely divorced from the context in which it was created.
What’s the Point?
Davies isn’t a bad writer. Queer as Folk was genuinely ground breaking television, and recent efforts like Cucumber and A Very British Scandal demonstrated a nuanced understanding of British society. Even his run on Doctor Who was flush with entertaining bombast. No, Davies is bad at ideology. His understanding is crude and simplified, and he has demonstrated no desire to expand or further his understanding. Rather, Years and Years serves as a platform for him to present his politics in an emotionally digestible package. What then is the point of Davies’s politics? How does he suggest we prevent a real world Rook from dragging Britain to the depths of fascism? The concluding episode includes a scene is which Muriel, the elderly matriarch of the Lyons clan, is transformed into a soapbox for Davies. Directly addressing the family, a surrogate for the audience, Muriel reprimands them for their inaction: they saw what was happening, but did nothing to stop it. As such, he leaves us with a trite Arendtian ‘all it takes for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing’. Not only does this ignore the millions of activists already trying to do something, it also presents a liberal reductionist conception of political action. It implies that a lack of individual responsibility and willingness to act is the primary reason for the rise of authoritarian leaning politics. Davies doesn’t give any indication as to what type of action could have stopped it, or any awareness to potential barriers that activists might face. Simply ‘doing something’ seems to be enough. This is the apex of Davies’s ideological shallowness. In ascribing the blame directly at individuals, he ignores the structural dynamics of ideology, and the way it saturates the fabrics of society, normalising what was previously viewed as extraordinary. In the same way that Viv Rook using a naughty word on the telly would be completely unremarkable in modern British society, authoritarian ideals are already gaining a foothold in everyday politics. The climax of Years and Years tells us that mere public awareness of evidence of concentration camps is enough to directly and immediately topple Rook’s government. That this is so unconscionable, it could not possibly be normalised or rationalised. Yet, last week clear evidence was presented that the Trump Administration is keeping children caged in detention centres without blankets, pillows, toothpaste, and other essential sanitation equipment.[ix] Not only did the Trump Administration publicly defend this, the centres, and the overarching policy remains in place. In fact, the Democratic Party even agreed to a bill granting more funding for this type of border control[x]. People have protested against the centres, en masse; a lack of activism is not the problem here. Instead, the problem is rooted in the structural incorporation and normalisation of authoritarianism within Western politics and society. Modern authoritarianism has evolved. It does not need to overthrow the system, it simply needs to nudge it gently to a point in which its ideas become accepted.
Dance Yourself to Sleep
On Thursday Thom Yorke and Paul Thomas Anderson provided a far more enriching contemplation on ideology. They released Anima, a 15 minute music video containing three tracks from Yorke’s album of the same title. Set in an undefined dystopian city, Anima tells a simple story of a man who breaks the cycle of urban monotony and anxiety to return a lunchbox to a beautiful woman he fleetingly made eye contact with on a train. Yorke and Anderson describe the film as a silent comedy, with Yorke providing a performance inspired by Buster Keaton, haplessly shambling through a perpetually shifting world designed to keep him from his goal. The story is told via dance, movement, and destabilised realities. It’s lovely. However, this world is rich in ideology. In one scene a line of suit clad workers jerk and shudder, physically playing out some hidden internal battle against the life and world that has been set out for them. The city itself contorts and distorts to stifle Yorke. Even the touching conclusion appears to be played out in reverse bringing Yorke to rest at a happy moment we know won’t last. Ideology here is not something outside the individual. It is internalised. We are complicit embodiments, stuck in an ideological machine that is physically and metaphysically secreting itself within our very souls. There’s no cathartic pay off of a destroyed system, or even a personal victory for Yorke’s protagonist. We are left wondering if we ever existed outside this machine. If freedom, love and happiness are simply dreams; stories we tell ourselves to help us sleep at night. This is the ideological structure that Years and Years strips away. It comforts us with a world in which individual action can make a clear difference, can radically and immediately change the world. However, in doing so in actually reduces our capacity to have real world impact. In presenting a caricature of 20th century authoritarianism in a 21st century context, it entrenches the idea that authoritarianism necessitates wholesale shifts in political structures and systems. It makes us less wary of the subtler ways in which these ideas engrain themselves in our cherished liberal democracies, and less aware of how we, ourselves, are shaped by these dynamics.
[ii] Jean-Pierre Faye (1996) Le Siècle des ideologies (Paris: Armand Colin)
[iii] I would urge Davies to read Emmy Eklund’s work on Spanish politics.
[iv] The programme pretty much writes the non-Western World out of existence. While Russia and China serve as mysterious eastern bogey men, the developing world only appears under the guise of fleeing refugees – a framing device that is revealing in regard to the lack of importance Davies places upon the vast majority of the planet.
[vii] Not because British history education is completely lacking in critical teeth, of course.