Future shock is the new normal


Shocked manA few weeks ago my Eureka Street colleague, John Warhurst, wrote a fascinating piece on the ‘normalisation’ of lying in Australian politics. ‘The terms lie and liar,’ Warhurst said, ‘have become so completely devalued that there are now far worse sins in modern politics.’

This set me thinking about ‘normalisation’, but I was not alone. Warhurst’s article had provoked many comments. ‘Normalisation’ has some sophisticated connotations, but what I mean by it here, and what I think Warhurst was interested in, is that process whereby certain phenomena that intrude on our daily lives and that we usually find shocking, or at best unacceptable, have their effect gradually dulled.

By a process of relentless iteration, they become normal. The catastrophic extinction of lives, especially of teenagers, by the mad excesses of road death, for example, becomes almost ‘normal’ because it happens so constantly and predictably. ‘Carnage on the roads’, despite its acknowledged horrors and waste, is regarded simply as the way things go for people in technologically advanced societies. It has become accepted, however reluctantly and shamefacedly by those who don’t directly experience it, as normal for our time and place.

The dispensation under which we now live, which may be loosely described as one manifestation of neoliberalism, both relies on and encourages new episodes of normalisation that go far beyond helpless acceptance of catastrophes on the roads. We are, for example, slowly coming round – or being brought round – to accepting that danger and disaster are always imminent.

They are ‘coming to get us’, warns our Prime Minister, adapting the ‘bogey man’ mode of our childhood fears to the contemporary narrative of terrorism and violence. It’s not that there is no threat – of course there is. It’s just that each manifestation of it, whether domestically or in world trouble spots, becomes, in neoliberal hands, a trigger for a further ramping up of nervous excitation, fear-mongering, khaki diplomacy – the fortuitous substructure of policy. The human tragedy, loss, grief and waste, central to and pre-eminent in every terrorist outrage, are disjoined from the event which quickly becomes an aspect of and yet another justification for policy decisions. In The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein puts it like this:

At the most chaotic juncture in Iraq’s civil war, a new law is unveiled that would allow Shell and BP to claim the country’s vast oil reserves … Immediately following September 11, the Bush Administration quietly out-sources the running of the ‘War on Terror’ to Halliburton and Blackwater … After a tsunami wipes out the coasts of Southeast Asia, the pristine beaches are auctioned off to tourist resorts … New Orleans’s residents, scattered from Hurricane Katrina, discover that their public housing, hospitals and schools will never be reopened … These events are examples of ‘the shock doctrine’: using the public’s disorientation following massive collective shocks – wars, terrorist attacks, or natural disasters – to achieve control by imposing economic shock therapy.

Although Australians have been spared some of these shocks, the description is still hauntingly familiar: Tampa, the Lindt Café siege, the shooting down of Flight MH17, weapons of mass destruction, the ‘Coalition of the Willing’, the commitment of troops to Afghanistan – each of them, among many others, have been followed by an Australian governmental reaction that continues to have political, electoral, social and economic effects reaching beyond the immediate cause, creating an atmosphere of uncertainty and apprehension and, in the case of the Abbott administration, designed to provide some renovation of the government’s tendentious image with the distraction of apparent decisiveness. The plan to ‘shirtfront’ Putin saw this process at its lowest ebb. More in line with shock doctrine politics was Julie Bishop’s apocalyptic insistence that Daesh (aka ISIS) is ‘an existential threat’, that is, a threat to our very survival.

Whether or not we can bring ourselves to believe in this confected maelstrom of emergency – remember the budget emergency that just somehow faded away? – the fact is it’s becoming more and more ‘normal’ for people to feel threatened and, in this condition of continuing unease, to consider surrendering long-held liberties in the cause of stopping ‘them’ from ‘coming to get us’; to contemplate with distress the further disadvantaging of the poor, the disabled, the aged, the ‘other’; to suspect, reject and malign refugees; and to see the ignoble causes of racism and religious prejudice championed on the streets.

Orwell is often quoted these days, and no wonder. He caught the neoliberal atmosphere imaginatively seventy odd years ago. Airstrip One, the Britain of 1984, is on a constant war footing, the people in an unrelieved state of apprehension. Their attention is distracted from domestic realities by warnings and alerts, enlisting them blindly as if joining a team in solidarity against the ‘enemy of the moment [which] always represented absolute evil …’ To Winston Smith’s anguished question, ‘Why?’ O’Brien gives the answer that has distinguished and continues to distinguish neoliberalism in our time. ‘Power,’ says O’Brien, ‘… the object of power is – power.’

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Shocked man image by Shutterstock.

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, politics, national security, George Orwell, normalisation, Tony Abbott



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If Orwell is often quoted these days, he is also often misquoted. Rather than capturing a ‘neoliberal atmosphere’ Orwell’s targets were totalitarianism and Western intellectuals. In the Spanish Civil War, Orwell fought with the communist POUM, whose leader, Andres Nin, was murdered by Alexander Orlov from Stalin’s NKVD. Nin was the model for Orwell’s hero Goldstein in his novel 1984. But Western intellectuals did not want to know the objective truth of Stalin’s treachery lest it shatter their illusions, and the Left Book Club refused to publish Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” which exposed communist treachery and propaganda. When Winston Smith ponders that the production of 50 million boots might in reality mean that no boots were produced, Orwell shows he understood Soviet statistics; academic economists didn’t. Orwell also believed in the common sense of the ordinary people who were both too sane and too stupid to accept the sophistical in place of the obvious. And from seeing ordinary people like farmers, bullfighters, and even Youth Hostels labelled ‘fascist’, Orwell would recognize how today ordinary people are labelled ‘racist’. Orwell knew the real motive of the Left was power. I’m sure he would recognize Brian Matthews ‘Doublethink’ as a tendentious Abbott-bash.

Ross Howard | 23 July 2015  

Excellent article.

Jim Jones | 24 July 2015  

There never is anything new under the sun. The great crime that capitalism commits, for example, is to keep the masses constantly fearful of the future. No one should be at all surprised at politicians using the same tactic.

Paul | 24 July 2015  

An excellent appraisal of a society seeking trust and belief. Our society has lost both of these civilising human influences and no longer has faith in its roots, sees nothing special in the human being itself and has replaced the concept of God with the narcissistic, humanist concept of self. The woes of the world are perhaps the work of Nemesis.

john frawley | 24 July 2015  

I think what both sides of politics in this country and elsewhere are guilty of is what Jung would term very powerful projections from the Shadow which take on a life of their own. These projections are both unconscious and irrational. They really started off because our major political figures don't seem to know the difference between truth and lies. Their discourse represents a new norm in politics. Because they are fighting so many shadow projections our politicians seem unable to deal with the pressing real issues which face us in the economy and the world. The answer lies, not with the politicians, but with us. If we cease to believe lies and no longer fear shadow projections we might actually force political parties to once again put forward leaders of the calibre of Menzies, Hawke and Keating who could actually govern the country with some foresight. Of course they made mistakes but they did not involve us in fighting "The War on Terror" which is really the cause of the terrible conflicts currently rending the Middle East which give rise to more terror. We need to come to our senses as a nation. Soon.

Edward Fido | 24 July 2015  

Ross Howard appears to attempt the polemical equivalent of putting a left shoe on his right foot and attempting to kick a ball with a right shoe…. (or is that left foot?) …… in mouth. At any rate, he still misses the goal: Brian Matthews likens the repeated and escalating ‘at-war’ rhetoric that has characterised recent Coalition responses to all manner of events, both here and overseas, to Orwell’s depiction of the way the Party operates in his novel. Ross refuses to see such a likeness but thinks it is the Left (i.e. ‘the other’) that is motivated by the desire for Power. Not that the Right (another ‘other’) would ever descend to that, of course! If Ross were as big an anti-Stalinist as he claims to be, he’d agree with Brian that continual escalating ‘at-war’ machismo was typically Stalinist and very destructive to the well-being of a society from many angles. As for Brian’s article being an “Abbott-bash”, well, as the saying goes: “if the cap fits…..”

SMK | 24 July 2015  

As with all novels once 1984 is published it is in the hands of the reader. As with all GOOD novels 1984 mirrors much more than the issue the author had in his mind. The book still has influence because very little has changed in the power game of politics. In an increasingly complex world, Australian politics just seems to be following the wrong example.

Margaret McDonald | 27 July 2015  

Most of what you mention is simply a weapon of mass distraction to divert the populace from the actual science and logical sequence of world events. In fact,"we" are coming to get ourselves.., "we" are committing murder/suicide. Our civilisation is about to implode and most of us will die in particularly nasty ways. whichever mind that we could have prevented this had we put any thought into the consequences of our own actions or lifted a hand to stop the destruction being wreaked in the name of "progress." Conjuring the bogy of the malevolent "other" is obviously more socially and politically acceptable than the cold hard truth that if we don't stop digging up and burning fossil fuel we are cooked. (see NASA Climate) We are so lazy that most of us prefer the corruption and lies and will not lift a finger to help our direct descendants, let alone deserving strangers.

Annette | 08 August 2015  

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