Elective madness, consumer riots & social psychopathy in the Age of Greed

Been thinking about my all-time fave author J.G. Ballard of late. I mean, feral gangs smashing and grabbing amidst the tower blocks? How very ‘High Rise’. A graphic designer arrested for looting? How very ‘Kingdom Come’.

I first read Ballard’s latter novel a couple of years ago, while still living in LondonTown. It resonated deeply with my innate hatred of, and perverse fascination with, shopping malls and rampant consumer culture in general.

As parts of London, and Birmingham, and then Manchester burned behind the cool indifference of my tellybox screen, I reached for Ballard on my shelf again. The terrifying prescience of his writing is at times a peculiar comfort.

In particular, I found myself recalling an exchange between the protagonist Richard Pearson, and wacky psychiatrist Dr Maxted (thanks to Laura Hird’s excellent book review site for saving me the effort of typing this extract) :

”Elective insanity is waiting inside us, waiting inside us to come out when we need it. We’re talking primate behaviour at its most extreme. Witch-hunts, auto-da-fes, heretic burnings, the hot poker shoved up the enemy’s rear, gibbets along the skyline. Willed madness can infect a housing estate or a whole nation.’

‘Thirties Germany?’

‘ Good example. People still think the Nazi leaders led the German people into the horrors of race war. Not true. The Germans were desperate to break out of their prison. Defeat, inflation, grotesque war reparations, the threat of barbarians advancing from the east. Going mad would set them free, and the chose Hitler to lead the hunting party. That’s why they stayed together to the end. They needed a psychopathic god to worship, so they recruited a nobody and stood him on the high altar. The great religions have been at it for millennia.’

‘States of willed madness? Christianity? Islam?’

‘Vast systems of psychopathic delusion that murdered millions, launched crusades and founded empires. A great religion spells danger. Today people are desperate to believe, but they can only reach God through psychopathology. Look at the most religious areas of the world at present – the Middle East and the United States. These are sick societies, and they’re going to get sicker. People are never more dangerous than when they have nothing left to believe except in God.’

‘But what else is there to believe in?’ I waited for Maxted to reply, but the psychiatrist was staring through the picture window at the dome of the Metro-Centre, fists gripping the air as if trying to steady the world around him. ‘Dr Maxted?’

‘Nothing. Except madness.’ Maxted rallied himself and turned back to me. ‘People feel they can rely on the irrational. It offers the only guarantee of freedom from all the cant and bullshit and sales commercials fed to us by politicians, bishops and academics. People are deliberately re-primitivizing themselves. They yearn for magic and unreason, which served them well in the past, and might help them again. They’re keen to enter a new Dark Age. The lights are on, but they’re retreating into the inner darkness, into superstition and unreason. The future is going to be a struggle between vast systems of competing psychopathies, all of them willed and deliberate, part of a desperate attempt to escape from a rational world and the boredom of consumerism.’

‘Consumerism leads to social pathology? Hard to believe.’

‘It paves the way. Half the goods we buy these days are not much more than adult toys. The danger is that consumerism will need something close to fascism to keep it growing. Take the Metro-Centre and its flat sales. Close your eyes a little and it already looks like a Nuremberg rally. The ranks of sales counters, the long straight aisles, the signs and banners, the whole theatrical aspect.’

‘No jackboots, though,’ I pointed out. ‘No ranting fuhrers.’

‘Not yet. Anyway, they belong to the politics of the street. Ourstreets are the cable TV consumer channels. Our party insignia are the gold and platinum loyalty cards. Faintly risible? Yes, but people thought the Nazis were a bit of a joke. The consumer society is a kind of soft police state. We think we have choice, but everything is compulsory. We have to keep buying or we fail as citizens. Consumerism creates huge unconscious needs that only fascism satisfy. If anything, fascism is the form that consumerism takes when it opts for elective madness. You can see it here already.’

‘In bosky Surrey? I don’t think so.’

‘It’s coming Richard.’ Maxted pursed his lips, as it to shut out all possibility of a smile. ‘Here and in the towns around Heathrow. You can feel it in the air.’

II believe we are living in the Age of Greed. A society built on the 1980s culture of me-me-me consumerism, and blended with the entitlement culture of the 1990s & 2000s (under a Tory ‘coalition’ government intent on squeezing the British Isles tighter than ever) is liable to burst. To tear apart at its sweatshop-stitched seams.

‘It’s coming… You can feel it in the air.’

You certainly can, J.G. 

Roll end credits:

And fade to red:
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About frazerlee

writer/director: On Edge, Red Lines, The Stay. screenwriter: Simone, Panic Button. bram stoker award nominated author: The Lamplighters, The Lucifer Glass, The Jack in the Green. http://www.frazerlee.com View all posts by frazerlee

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