Dammit, I miss the Kuala Lumpur LCCT — or low-cost carrier terminal, to give it its full title. The terminal for Air Asia and other no-frills airlines across the region, the KL LCCT was the last of the old hippie trail/Contiki airports — a series of interconnected sheds, with big fans moving the air around and jerry-built shops and take-aways gathered beneath. Concrete floors, tired beige offices with gormless crusties being questioned by sweaty officials, taxis roaring to a stop to disgorge panicked tourists who’d gone to the main terminal 45 minutes away … It was a place where things might happen. But now it’s gone. Closed down a year or so ago, replaced by the gleaming new KLIA2, flawless and lifeless. I’ve been through it three times now, and I’m starting to enjoy its vast marble and glass vestibule, its bar with 30 power points — EUR, US, AUS configurations — that best part of the journey, where you float slowly through four G and Ts while waiting for your connection and listen to the conversations. This group for example: a balding, sweating, heavyset Aussie bloke with a too-loud voice who seems familiar for some reason, and, oh, his 20-something Thai bride, curves like the Albert Park F1 track, discoursing loudly on the AFL: “The Sydney Swans are shitttttttt. They’re going nowhere.” Their friend, 50s, balding, less heavyset, more tentative. On his way to Bangkok. The “league teams” rundown ends, there’s a silence, then fat bald man starts. “This government, this government …”
By Bangkok, I’d caught up with the news. A bizarre Border Force/Victoria Police operation, in which Melbourne was to be the scene for a re-enactment of scenes from Casablanca — “Where are your papers?” “Rick … hide me.” The thing was a farce anyway, but it was routed by the radical spirit of Melbourne, which, whatever frustration many might feel with it at any given time, is one of the more radical cities in the world at this time. What is one to do with this ridiculous event, which appears designed to turn the most hardened “turn the boats back” enthusiast into a liberal? And beyond that, what can any satirist do with a figure like Roman Quaedvlieg? His appearance in Australian politics was like one of those moments in late ’60s movies when the action stops and everyone starts dancing to a track by the Dave Clark Five. I mean, after Sir Prince Philip, wouldn’t someone have a little circumspection about Tony Abbott’s rich ’30s MGM fantasy world? The thing about Quaedvlieg — not so much a name as a goodish Scrabble hand — is that you could say he is a version of Prince Rupert from The Prisoner of Zenda, but that would be an insult to the cool realism of Anthony Hope. In fact he resembles Prince Gerhardt, Pee-wee Herman’s star turn in 30 Rock. Watch and enjoy. This bloke is running the Border Farce.
More bizarrely, the government’s current troubles, and its looming caning in Canning, appeared to focus attention on … Joe Hockey. Joe Hockey? Why? It’s like blaming the leather chair for the fart noise you made sitting in it. No one hates Joe. No one cares about Joe. Everyone recognises that he’s the useless bloke in the office you have to work around. Their loathing is for one man alone, and that is Tony Abbott. They never liked him. They hate him now, with the bitterness of people who’ve been conned and have to live with the consequences.
Landing in Stockholm (pro tip: there are thousands of cheap seats Bangkok-Stockholm. The Swedes love Thailand, holiday there en masse. Being Swedes, in return, they have set up thousands of scholarships for Thai kids, so the traffic back and forth is monumental. Bloody Swedes, showing us all up. What’s wrong with Club Med for godssake, and a quick holiday in other people’s misery?) I pick up a paper and read that the Sweden Democrats are at 16% and the government of the shoe? Can it be shoe? Can not olandlik the vanbadhamkeit. Damn it, my Swedish is not what it was, but the gist appears to be that the new right party, the Sweden Democrats, is now the third party, behind the Social Democrats and the centre-right Moderate Party (the Swedes have a Moderate Party and a Centre Party — they’re the only country to have a split over who is more moderate). Not good, but not, as alarmist global reports suggested earlier, putting them as the first party, with 30% etc support.
The rise of such right-left populist parties in Scandinavia is not a lunge to the right; it’s both a decomposition of the left and a betrayal, by the left elite, of the implicit promise made in Scandinavian social democracy, that such countries would be “the people’s home”. Committing to the European Union and unlimited mobility in the name of multiculturalism, social democratic parties simply aligned themselves with neoliberalism. The result has not only been a pressure on the social democratic society — which relies on a limited labour supply, giving labour the power to demand a goodly share of the wages/profits split — it has undermined the great generosity that Swedes had towards political refugees over half a century. A starchy monocultural society (I once saw a professor of Australian studies in Uppsala begin a lecture by “acknowledging the original inhabitants”. Thirty blond heads turned to each other in bewilderment. They’d been there since 6000 BC. What original inhabitants? The New World man couldn’t understand what the Old World was), they opened themselves up to everyone, Greeks, Chileans, Turks. Palestinians, Somalis, Iraqis — and not least African-Americans, many of them servicemen and jazz musicians passing through. The Swedes decided that US racial relations, pre-1968, were grounds for asylum, and there is a black US-Swedish population in Malmo. The phone book is full of Allendes, Davilas, Papadopoouloses, etc. The volume was so high that by the 2000s, political refugees and the second and third generation of their kids constituted 12.5% of the population.
Olive-skinned people speaking Swedish didn’t undermine the “people’s home”; free labour flow did. Yet despite that all, social democratic civilisation survived. A vaguely Thatcherite right gained government in 1993-94, after 50 years of uninterrupted social democracy. They did some good and necessary things, but they pushed the free-market ideal too hard, and the Swedes — who had been heartily sick of the arrogance of social democrats, etc — threw them out at the first opportunity. Since then, the Moderate Party has reshaped itself and offered simply a loyal opposition version of social democracy — it was the Moderates, for example, who first offered parental leave (currently standing at about 400 days at 80% of salary, to be shared between both parents), and the Social Democrats who were then obliged to adopt it, because it was so wildly popular.
The Moderates got into power in 2006, which made me somewhat downcast. But they were chucked out in 2014 and a rather torpid Soc Dem government returned. This appeared to be the best result of all. Over two decades, Sweden’s once-famously closed social democracy — no commercial TV, no cable, all sorts of other limits — was opened up somewhat, while retaining a high-tax regime with public acceptance, and a public state. That a social democratic state can survive that suggests that the worst of neoliberalism might be over, that a more sophisticated idea of choice, freedom and social obligation can survive the blandishments of the freedom-atomised individual choice mob, and regrow, as advanced economies become post-capitalist, and the territorial state acquires a renewed importance.
Mind you, I was there for a woman. Stockholm without … meh … She’s an expert in Poulantzas, the Greek theorist of the state, who has been highly influential on the Syriza government’s strategy and beliefs, and was so optimistic about a socialist future that he committed suicide in the mid-1970s, so, y’know. The discussion of the state as interlocking ensembles versus a level of overall determination and the forms of sovereign-denominated subjectivity started at the airport and continued, via the excellent train system, all the way down the coast, towards Malmo and Copenhagen, and of course it was all about sex and commitment. The ancients tell of a time when arguments about social theory weren’t stoushes about sex and commitment, and ancillary matters like who takes tenure and who looks after the kids, but no one has any memory of it now. The last such recorded moment was at a conference on “discourse v ideology” in Boise, Idaho, in 1995, when an associate professor made an apparently unmotivated observation about how Foucauldian strategies could themselves be a meta-ideology. Since then it’s just been a proxy war between tenure-track couples about pooey nappies and oral sex ratios).
So we yelled at each other about interpellation, and whose subjectivity was more illusory — I believe Flight Centre will soon be offering this as a package deal — through a series of charming bars and small restaurants, and the slow train south, with m’companion — better give her a pseudonym; Hedda will do — trying not to go to goo at the five-month-old baby in the seat opposite, when the train came to a halt with a very unSwedish lurch. We waited 20 minutes or so, read the news, and I noted that Maurice Newman was having a go at me (and Peter Hartcher) because we had pointed out that Abbott was duchessing the hard right (on same-sex marriage), and that the hard right (Bolt, Devine, etc) had lost the ear of the public on issues like Adam Goodes, white skin privilege, etc. “These writers forget the past,” Newman thundered, going into a 750-word green-ink rave about the deficit, Greece, etc, and everything irrelevant to what we had been talking about, which seemed to confirm that the man is one of those “I Went To the University of Life” clowns who besiege editors with their useless tracts. Difference is, the Oz publishes them, to the detriment of the right. Long may Maurice reign.
Thinking all this, when the train stopped and we all lurched in our seats. Eventually an announcement told us that “the teapot was sick, had always been sick, and was reverting to the something something for grundissmentalikeit” (my translation). The mother of the baby explained that we had to swap trains with the northbound passengers because our southbound train’s engine had failed. We all rose to disembark, and something very interesting happened. Swedes have been portrayed, falsely, as collectivist and conformist. In fact a near-century of social democracy has made them entirely individualist, in action, while conformist in cultural celebration, perhaps not the best result (but more like the US than either society would like to acknowledge). The woman with the baby — kid’s name was Lars, we never got hers — got up, started to try to wrangle eight pieces of luggage with a baby in hand. We would help, we protested, she demurred, we said it was impossible for her to do this alone. She reluctantly agreed, and Hedda and I lumbered her cases down on to the platform, and then while the mum regrouped, Hedda took the baby to her chest, and all discussion of the discursive gap in differentiated being ceased for a while (in fairness, Hedda may have her own take on this).
Everyone, and a lot of people were in their 60s and 70s, was lumbering their cases down, but no one was really helping each other — except us, and a couple of Arab kids, with sharp, gangish haircuts and banlieue style, who, chirping away in mingled Swedish and Arabic, were just manhandling huge cases down the steps and onto the platform. They hadn’t hesitated; they’d just done it, because that’s what you do. We’d asked, but we’d also then insisted. We and the Arab kids were on the same side of what is to be done in such situations. The Swedes were on the other, unsure of boundaries, struggling along in a form of self-reliance that has become an individualism.
That’s interesting, because it’s a paradoxical result — explored in a 2006 book Are Svenska Manniskor? (Are the Swedish Even Human?), written by two journalists, using the full battery of psychoanalytic, Foucauldian etc theory, to pose the paradox: decades of social democracy had made the Swedes so self-reliant that a radical individualism was the dominant mode of life, and with it a form of generalised depression and isolation that had moved to the centre of psychic existence. It’s no coincidence that the greatest Swedish novel of the postwar era is called Autisterna (The Autistics), a harrowing study of how self-reliant but interconnected people had become merely self-reliant*. It was on display on that train platform, with people who wouldn’t help each other, no longer knew how to act in an interruption, a minor emergency. To me, it seemed that our — mine and Hedda’s, and the Arab kids’ — approach was the right one, that there has to be an intermeshing, otherwise, well …
But, but, but … when the journey was nearing its end, and Hedda had been persuaded to give Lars back, the mother began preparing for disembarkment 10 minutes before we came into Malmo, re-assembling the baby carriage, stowing cases within it, etc, etc. She was determined that, when she got out, she’d do it on her own, and not as someone dependent on the kindness of strangers. And who can scorn that, as a social goal, as an individual aspiration? Who cannot say that that is where equality lives? There is no easy answer to that, and any very advanced society is going to have to grapple with how people can connect and be bound together without a nostalgic return to old models — and equally without some ghastly Facebook/Tinder world, exciting for a couple of years, before the dividend becomes clear.
Ah, it does occur to me. *clears throat* Check your email, if you haven’t already today.
Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen provided some sort of answer. A city on a human scale, walkable everywhere, Copenhagen is at the heart of a society well on the way to a post-capitalist future. The Abbott government may be attracted to dissident golden boy Bjorn Lomborg, but the real story of Denmark is the opposite — how a country is becoming self-sufficient on renewable energy, and well on the way to being a “recursive” society — one where innovation adds to the social dividend, rather than subtracting from it by lowering GDP, that absurd and useless measure of human activity. In Copenhagen you can see the charging stations for the electric cars, but they’re now slightly archaic, because the cars charge themselves as they go. This is how it’s going to be, because capital, which was once dependent on physical labour, the brute exploitation of the human body, is now dependent on intellect, which successively transforms the very value-form it is part of. That is obvious to everyone except the dimwit legacy cases who write for News Corp, like Maurice Newman. The world is advancing beyond them so fast that their compromised, neurotic attachment to the old world ranks as a sort of treachery. In decades to come, we will look back on this period not merely as a wasted era, but as a sort of tragedy, in which our energies were taken up with a demented collection of fourth-raters calling themselves a government, while the global economic base shifted beneath us. Mind you, Denmark is now ruled by a centre-right coalition, in which the nativist Danish People’s Party plays a leading role. So, y’know.
That didn’t preclude a visit to the Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen’s central amusement park, still going more than a century after its founding. Here, the postmodern world began, for it was here in 1951 that Walt Disney came for ideas on how to create a new sort of amusement park. He’d seen many in the states, but what struck him about the Tivoli — a funfair next to the Copenhagen central station, i.e. where Swanston Street or Sydney’s Chinatown are — was the totality of the environment. The Tivoli was a worker’s fairground, gone feral, a money-free fantasy zone — once you paid entrance, everything was laid on. It was an intimation of communism and how it might undermine the ego-structures of bourgeois civilisation. “Disneyland is a Club Med of the social Imaginary!” I said to Hedda, as I drove our red pedalo into a bewildered family in a blue pedalo, who did not understand the dodgem principle. “Oh shut the fuck up, I am so tired of that shit,” she replied wittily. The joke, the joke of modernity, is that Walt imported the concept to a society in which it was the exception, not the rule. Pay the exorbitant entry price to the Magic Kingdom in Anaheim or Orlando, and you are inducted into the one region of the US in which full communism has been achieved (OK, meals are extra). Labour and capital, id and ego, blend together. It’s said that, for several years in the last ’70s, Deleuze and Guattari formed two halves of a pantomime horse on Main Street, USA** . Happiness occurs when the inside matches the outside, Winnicott said. By that measure the Tivoli at the centre of Copenhagen — and clearly an inspiration for the free society of Christiania, a four-decades-old commune set up in the old Danish cavalry barracks, and still going strong, despite some hairy moments — is an affirmation of social democratic society while Disneyland instantiates the shrieking social neurosis of a fully marketised social whole. Both the Tivoli and Christiania, in turn, amplify the idea of innovation as play, as free life-activity, and so we go, and so we go.
Hedda sacked me as soon as we got back to Rome. Did not see that coming. Went back to the airport, and got a transfer out. But hey, we are all of us in transit. Why was I …?
Oh yeah, that moment at the KL departure lounge? “This government, this government … I mean, I know Abbott’s mad, but you’d think, you’d think, someone around him could control him, but there’s no one.”
“There’s no one,” agreed thinner man.
“I want a margarita, baby, a big one,” the wife said.
“You know,” said bald, fat, sweaty man, waving for the minimum-wage waiter, “I’m from Queensland. I’m a Joh man. You know Joh? OK, he and Russ, Russ Hinze, you know Russ, OK, they were a bit rough around the edges, but my god they got things done. This mob … but my god, Labor. Shorten! But you know,” he leaned in. “I have never voted Labor in my life, but I will next time.”
His wife turned to their friend
“So, Steve, what is it you like about Filipino women so much?”
And by then I had to go for my plane.
Quick note, Coalition. When you have lost the Thai John vote, it is red rover. Election, please.
And so to America! Everything will be much clearer there!
*by Stig Larrson. Not Steig Larrson, author of the The Girl Who …, etc. Confusingly, Sweden’s two greatest postwar prose authors have virtually identical names.