“When will 2016 end?”
Social media transmits news and fixes mass opinion at an unprecedented rate. Richard Dawkins’s memes – self-replicating ideas – evolved into cat pictures with captions, and those pictures were spread around millions of people. The blogsphere/twitterati/instafam soon hits on a trend and runs with it until new ones emerge and the old ones are forgotten. Our ‘hive mind’ quickly selects phrases, jokes and attitudes; tags people with labels of hero and villain; and chooses trends, news and fashion which then pass into what might be termed ‘common sense’.
This year it became the fashion to bemoan the year itself. 2016’s favourite enemy was 2016. The calendar year became to modern people what the various devils, dibbuks, duppies, djinns, incubi, faeries and etc. had been to people of pre-Enlightenment civilisations. “Oh 2016, why have you taken from us yet another most precious member of our tribe?” wailed the tweeters and posters from their sackcloth toilet seats, virtually tearing their hair and beating their breasts in mourning.
At times, this was funny and it may have served as collective catharsis for a species stumbling hopelessly onwards towards an ever-more technologically advanced geno-suicide, but it did not serve very well as analysis. 2016 does not elect Donald Trump; people do.
Yet if it does indeed feel significant that luminaries of modern cultures of the status of David Bowie (d. Jan; aged 69, liver cancer), Prince (d. April; aged 57, opoid overdose), Muhammed Ali (d. June; aged 74, septic shock) and Leonard Cohen (d. Nov.; aged 82, cancer) all died within the same Gregorian twelve month cycle, perhaps there is reason for this feeling beyond random co-occurrence. At the extreme end of this chatter, the villain ‘2016’ is in fact code for Mossad-CIA-illuminati-etc. There are well-documented instances of state murders. The alleged 638 attempts to kill Fidel Castro, another of merciless 2016’s unfortunate victims, is revealing of the dark machinations to which these bastards can sink to. Yet, with all respect to George Michael (d. Dec; aged 53, heart failure) and Carrie Fisher (d. Dec; aged 60, stroke) and with due acknowledgment of their charitable acts and contributions to the representation of women and LGBTIQ people in the public sphere, they were not Fred Hampton or Martin Luther King. Familiar as I am with the paranoid-delusional mindstate, I know this will not convert the hardcore conspiracist – indeed it only proves my complicity – however, I am still yet to be convinced that Paul Daniels (d. March; aged 77, brain tumour) and Terry Wogan (d. Jan; aged 77, cancer) were, as J Edgar Hoover said of the Black Panther Party, “the real long-range threat to American society”.
More sensibly, it might be pointed out that 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of summer of love. Pop culture, the mass dissemination and commodification of working class entertainment, exploded as a phenomenon after the Second World War. It was part of the democratisation of the social welfare years: what is sometimes called the ‘post-war consensus’. After the massacres and sacrifices forced on their population, the Western powers realised, as Tory politician Quintin Hogg said in 1943, ‘We must give them reforms or they will give us revolution.’ Culture going pop was a part of the flattening of society. Thus, although its producers and pioneers were young (pop culture being youth culture), it is now about 60 or 70 years old. It is time that some of its proponents should drop dead. Years do not kill people, time does.
There have been voices in every generation for at least as long as recorded human history who have thought that they were living in the end of days, and perhaps such ideas are simply the confused and grandiose enlargement of our own inevitable, individual demise. Yet, it does seem that we are at some kind of turning point.
In the 1960s, people genuinely felt that pop music could be revolutionary. The youth were flocking to concerts and ‘happenings’. They were getting ‘freaked’ on acid and psychedelia and liberated by the contraceptive pill. Music, some said, would switch the minds of the youth in a way that meant that they could never see the world in the same way again. Twenty years after Hiroshima, the world powers and their satellites had already fought forty wars and civil wars from China, Greece, Algeria and Indo-China to Suez, Israel and the Bay of Pigs. The threat of Mutually Assured Destruction hung over the globe but there was a genuine belief in the potential for change that would come from mass disengagement and non-compliance, turning young minds to a flower-power, peace and love alternative of rational non-work. “Turn on, tune in, drop out”, was the message. The agents of change would not be Marx’s factory workers but Bob Dylan (still alive), Janis Joplin (d.1970, aged 27, heroin overdose) and Jefferson Airplane (half still alive, two dead this year).
The flipside of this democratised-culture-as-revolution was the advent of mass consumerism. Ordinary people, thanks to the marvels of mass production, the exhortations of advertising and the ‘consensus’ of full (male) employment, social security and rising wages, could become consumers. Everything could be commoditised, capitalised and mass-produced, including, it turned out, what had once seemed impregnable to such forces, pop music itself.
The real resistance to US hegemony came in the Third World, what Marx had thought was only a “periphery” to the main stage of revolution. Thus, I would argue, that the most significant death of 2016 was also its most predictable. Long-since given up power to his brother, thought by many to be dead already, many of his revolutionary gains had long since expired. Yet in importance, what Castro (d. Nov; aged 90, undisclosed) achieved towers over all the work of Prince, Bowie etc. He stood up to the United States long enough for a
joke-meme to seem real, and inspired revolutions across the region and indeed the developing world. From Grenada and Nicaragua in 1979 to Venezuela in 1998, there were states in the US’s own backyard who stubbornly refused to comply with their allotted place in the world pecking order, and where top-down, party-led attempts to shake off neo-imperialism raised the standard of living for millions of people condemned to poverty by the demands of the ‘American century’. Cuba even proved the possibility of successful humanitarian intervention. According to a 2007 article quoted on Wikipedia Cuba has “42,000 workers in international collaborations in 103 different countries, of whom more than 30,000 are health personnel, including no fewer than 19,000 physicians.” It also takes in and trains doctors from across the developing world and even managed to find a way to intervene militarily when Cuban soldiers helped Angola achieve liberation. Just as the CND symbol of the Aldermaston marchers remains a symbol of peace, so Che Guevara’s face is the most recognised symbol of revolution. Both images are used with probably equal levels of ignorance as to their history.
Yet by 2008 (eight years before the dreaded 2016) when Castro stepped down as President and the financial crash led to the implementation of austerity programmes throughout the globe, these revolutions of the Global South had died a death, just as the triumph of neo-liberalism had already swallowed up many of the gains of the social democracy in the North. The leaders and ruling parties of the countries of the former European empires either swapped socialism-for-all for personal wealth and power (as the ANC in South Africa); were assassinated (as Maurice Bishop in Grenada, Patrice Lumumba in Zaire/DRC and Salvador Allende in Chile); were removed in military coups (as Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana and Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran); were structurally adjusted into compliance (as Michael Manley in Jamaica) or became paranoid tyrants clinging to power (as Papa Doc in Haiti or Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe).
Hugo Chávez, who died in the equally deadly year of 2013, may have suffered from all of the above. His Bolivarian revolution gave the last lease of life to Castro-style third-world socialism. He began his transformation of Venezuela in 1999 by convincing his fellow OPEC countries to abide by their oil production quotas. The price of oil soared from an all-time low of $11 a barrel in 1998 to reach over $90 a barrel in 2008. On coming to power, Chavez forced the nationalisation of the industry and used to the profits to fund social programmes and turn Venezuela from a corrupt little exploited backwater to a major regional power, inspiring and/or funding similar revolutions in Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, and Nicaragua.
Yet, it was the USA’s failure to manage regime change in the Middle East, which led to the deaths that should really stand out in 2016; and to mass refugees. The disasters the world powers have inflicted through poorly managed military, economic or political interventions in Libya, Greece and Ukraine have broken some of the key outposts of ‘fortress Europe’ and led to 2015’s influx into Europe’s inner citadels of Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians whom their wars had dispossessed. Domestically, Western politicians’ failure to convince their public that they were anything other than a self-serving, uncaring, snouts-in-the-trough (and other parts in the snouts) élite has destroyed any lingering public faith in the ‘social contract’ and paved the way for the march of petty-minded nationalism. The British government’s crude attempt to use a referendum (only the 3rd ever UK-wide referendum, but the second of the current government) to appease and eventually silence their right-wing critics backfired spectacularly. Hoping to show the nationalist fringe that ‘the people’ supported free-trade, cheap labour and globalised production, instead they came up against a classically British two-fingered salute of disempowered defiance. In France, Hollande’s complete backtrack on nearly all his campaign promises has destroyed the Parti Socialiste; Blair-Brown-Milliband had already
withered away any belief in the British Labour Party; and across the former Communist bloc, ultra-nationalist parties have taken advantage of the disillusionment with the grossly unequal settlement that ‘freedom’ brought Eastern Europe. And of course 2016 was the year Hilary Clinton got her great come-uppance.
So perhaps 2016 is part of the long, painful endgame of social democracy in the West and of the Castro-style revolutions of the global south. “Come, then, comrades,” as Frantz Fanon said in 1961, “it would be as well to decide at once to change our ways. We must shake off the heavy darkness in which we were plunged, and leave it behind. The new day which is already at hand must find us firm, prudent and resolute.” And it is to the Middle East and the Mediterranean that we must look for inspiration. There we have seen glimpses of a possible Utopian future of bottom-up social movement of participative democracy, without assassinatable or corruptible leaders, without internal sexism and without easily overwhelmed or misdirected violence, but with strong organised structures and no fetish against or fear of sensible hierarchies. There have been promising attempts: from the tragic failures of Egypt and Syria, their imitators in Greece and Spain and the surprising successes in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan). The era of the great 19th century reform movements ended with globalisation and the left’s subsequent existential crisis is, I hope, coming to a close. The model of a new social order is emerging. We must, as Fanon (d. 1961; aged 36, leukaemia) said: “combine our muscles and our brains in a new direction”. The nuclear threat is no less than it was 50 years ago and climate disaster on a rapidly over-populating globe is certainly much closer. “We now know,” as Murray Bookchin (d 2006; aged 85, heart failure) said, “that the need for radical change cannot be indefinitely deferred. What is clear is that human beings are much too intelligent not to have a rational society; the most serious question we face is whether they are rational enough to achieve one.”
 The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins, 1976
 I would add Italian playwright Dario Fo to that list but as nobody seems to have noticed his passing, I have left him to this footnote. Perhaps this goes to show how subjective such lists are. Should you have a spare few hours, you can search through the Wikipedia list of significant deaths for 2016 and see how few of the ‘famous’ people that died this year you have actually heard of. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deaths_in_2016
 This and subsequent crude oil figures quoted from http://inflationdata.com/Inflation/Inflation_Rate/Historical_Oil_Prices_Table.asp
 The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon, 1961
 The Communalist Project, Bookchin, 2002; from The Next Revolution; Verso 2015.