McGarvey: Society can be inspired to rise from its ashes

This is an anxious time: we are overwhelmed by economic, social and environmental concerns

Travelling is a wonderful pick-me-up. It reminds us in these turbulent times that everyone basically has the same problems.

This is an anxious time. If you’re an adult, you undoubtedly worry about the future of the economy. If you’re young, you’re probably concerned about the environment or if you’ll ever afford a house. Many are nervous about phenomena like Brexit and Donald Trump, the growing sense that our governing elites are out of touch with reality.

Given that misery loves company, you’ll be pleased to know that the rest of the world is struggling with many of the same anxieties.

Berlin, the capital of Germany, is a wonderful city, full of history, grandeur and complexity. Naturally the Germans, being German, are suffering a particularly nasty case of this modern anxiety.

Although this anxiety generally resides under the skin in German life, it’s very up-front in the arts. Consider the work of videographer Julian Rosefeldt. His latest exhibit Manifesto (showing at the Hamburger Bahnhof gallery in central Berlin) is both beautiful and horrifying in its sense of impending doom.

Manifesto is a selection of 13 short, very intense, art films starring actress Cate Blanchett. Blanchett is in full flight in these films, transforming into diverse figures – a radical hobo, an irritating punk rocker, a super prim elementary school teacher, an evil puppeteer and a financial broker, to name but a few.

In the central role in each of these visual stunners, Blanchett’s strident monologues lay waste to the comfortable status quo, condemning capitalism, consumerism, our obsession with superficiality and just about ever other ‘ism’ imaginable. I could not take my eyes off the screen or quite believe the scope of her acting genius.

I emerged from Manifesto inspired and depressed – and convinced that although our problems are more than obvious, no one seems to have the slightest idea what to do about them.

The arts raise questions but don’t necessarily have answers. They are mired in feelings, obsessed with exposing humanity’s dark reality. Music is often discordant, literature can be terrified of happiness. Only the visual arts seem to be moving beyond the abstract to rediscover drawing, form and real human emotions. But although they plumb the emotional depths of our despair, they’re neither capable of nor predisposed to advance positive futures.

And what of academia? Surely they’re doing the hard slugging to enlighten us on how to save civilization.

Regrettably, no.

Economists exist in a theoretical universe so distant from Earth we need Star Trek-like abilities to connect with them and special telepathic powers to interpret their mystical hieroglyphics.

Sociologists, psychologists and others in the humanities, when asked about positive solutions, fall back on the tired neo-romantic notion that, short of revolution, nothing can be done. They don’t have positive solutions; their job is to catalogue the systemic forces of evil and champion the oppressed.

Meanwhile, the downward drift and the sense of loss grow stronger every day.

But perhaps there are some lessons in the back pages of our cultural life that provide guidance.

Look deeply enough and you’ll discover that every age has been anxious. All these periods of grief share a set of exhausted ideas, a commonly-held belief system that had reached the end of its useful life. Hope was only renewed when a new belief system overthrew the old.

Real progress was possible only when a more relevant set of governing ideas emerged.

Our world accepts as fact that the majority culture oppresses the rest. Colonialism in the political realm, and economic and cultural bias have created misery. Women, minorities, gays, transgendered individuals and native peoples are crippled victims of oppression.

But none of this contributes to a positive future. Particularism and the cult of victimhood separate individuals, cultures and peoples, rather than uniting them in common purpose.

If history is any guide, we need a new intellectual frame to take full advantage of the astonishing good will, talent, capital and brilliance that exists in the modern world.

If we share problems, we can certainly share solutions. The battles we need to fight must be based on the worthy cause of new ideas, for only they will provide a pathway to glory.

Troy Media columnist Robert McGarvey is an economic historian and former Managing Director of Merlin Consulting, a London, U.K.-based consulting firm.

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