Whilst the weather gets colder and the days turn darker, more advertisements start popping up in the media offering us cheap getaways to distract us from our daily lives. Carl Cederstrom and Peter Fleming show us why this industry is growing and how it relates to the ‘culture of escape’.
Escape From Cameron Island – by Carl Cederstrom and Peter Fleming
In 2012, two years into David Cameron’s premiership, and one year after his famous speech attacking multiculturalism, BBC ran an article with the following headline: ‘Illegal Immigrants Desperate to Escape the Squalor of Britain’. One could easily work out from the title that this was not the sort of story that would neatly fit the current cultural climate. It was too irreconcilable with the prevailing fantasy of Britain as an idyllic island, an island that the poor global multitude will do almost anything to enter. Unsurprisingly, the story passed unnoticed.
The most striking detail of this article was related to what is known as voluntary deportation. In 2005, 330 illegal immigrants gave themselves up to the authorities to be sent back to their homeland. Seven years later, in 2012, that number had grown to 23,148 (an increase, statisticians would not fail to note, of almost 7000 percent). These people had left behind a life of hardship and poverty, only to find themselves in the same misery once again. As the report discovered, they typically lived a silent underground life, away from the authorities, in overpriced makeshift shelters, littered with rotting rubbish and hungry rats. Only occasionally would they find work, and then slave-like work that would barely cover the rent. For them, Britain has become another hellish place from which they want to escape.
What is worse is that many of these people are trapped in the country. They cannot get out since they followed the traffickers’ instructions and destroyed their papers on their arrival. After all, illegal immigrants risk their lives for a purpose. They arrive with the hope of settling down properly, and in the event of getting caught, they have no reason to aid the authorities’ task of deporting them. In retrospect, perhaps they should’ve ignored the traffickers. Had they known that deportation was going to be what they most desired just a few years down the line, they surely would have weighed their options more carefully.
Perhaps the traffickers took this possibility into account, with the advice to destroy all papers part of a cunning business idea. Because, without the appropriate documents, illegal immigrants are left with no other option than to return to the traffickers – this time to get out of Britain; in early 2013 one British tabloid reported that foreign nationals are indeed now smuggled out of the country. They are transported in the back of lorries across the English Channel to France. The cost is still relatively modest – according to their sources, a mere £1,500.
Escape has become a shared desire for many of those trapped in this neoliberal nightmare. Britain, as its character has morphed into that of David Cameron’s (making its appearance unapologetic, twisted and menacing), has become an island from which not just foreign nationals but practically everyone wants to exit.
This has given rise to an emerging genre of escape fantasies. They take different forms, mainly determined by class. Many in the upper classes have already integrated moments of escape into their daily lives, with houses in France, apartments in Saudi Arabia and frequent visits to Bali and South Africa. The middle-classes, although intermittently going abroad, spend most of their time dreaming about alternative lives: making detailed and elaborate plans about next year’s holidays; talking endlessly about moving abroad, or to the countryside, where they could live peacefully, with a garden to cultivate, neighbouring an authentic local farm from where they could buy fresh duck eggs, those wonderful brown ones with real freckles.
What makes the middle-class fantasy of escape so distinct is the way in which it is articulated in relation to work. While unemployment is a haunting nightmare, in many ways the worst thing that could happen to them, both symbolically and economically, they nevertheless romanticise life after work, telling themselves: ‘if only I could escape work – make a proper exit – I could finally do all of those things I currently have no time or energy for’.
This culture of exit is especially prominent in the public sector, where workers are predominantly middle-class. A recent employee-engagement survey of the UK police-force revealed a striking level of disillusionment. According to one police officer, “morale is the lowest I have ever known… I wish I could leave tomorrow”. Another example is the UK Border Agency, which was forced to recruit new staff, since “more people than expected wanted to leave”. Even university lecturers, who supposedly enjoy one of the last, few ‘good jobs’, are aching to leave. In a recent interview following his retirement, Terry Eagleton was asked what was different about academia today compared to when he started. His response: “Most people I know in academia want to get out. Which is a pretty new situation. I’ve never encountered that before”.
If not completely new, this sentiment has reached unprecedented heights. The desire to escape is deeply human, true, but you cannot deny that some places are more likely to prompt this desire than others. And Britain, after years of nihilistic neoliberal experimentation, appears to have become such a place.
This is a remarkable transformation if one considers the elevated place that Britain has always had in the imagination of the outside world, not least among young children. For them, as for many others, Britain has been more of an image than a physical place, a land shaped by Mary Poppins and Charles Dickens and the red miniature double-decker buses displayed in local toyshops around the world. It is the world one finds on postcards picturing Big Ben and Buckingham Palace and the solemn guards in bearskin hats. It is an image of an island where people are eccentric, sport the latest fashion, and talk rapidly and wittily. In this image, even the rain appears different, somehow softer and lighter, especially in the late evenings, as in The Singing Detective or Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy, where you could see it shimmering in the city lights, as elongated shadows deftly disappear down narrow lanes, lending the city-night a particular mystique. All is cosy and snug. There is nothing to fear. Even Jack the Ripper is harmless. His story being so deeply entrenched in this romantic image of the city that his killings appear trivial in comparison.
Today, however, this image is largely dead. True, the political right wants us to hold onto it, but it belongs to a different era. And we know it. Even the children growing up far away from Britain know it. Something that became painfully apparent during the opening and closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympics in London, where Danny Boyle presented a nostalgic array of scenes involving Shakespeare and James Bond, and, most bizarrely, a scene saluting The National Health Service – which, no doubt, was meant as an obituary. Run-down public services, neglected regional planning and inflated cost of living has made this island ever more inhospitable. The wish to escape, then, appears to be the only logical response.
One of the most significant features of capitalist culture in the UK today – and this is a point that very rarely gets addressed – is the way in which this idea of escape, an imagined escape from the cold realities of a neoliberal wasteland, has itself become an industry. Just flick through The Sunday Times property pages and you will see that there is now a whole business sector that seeks to accommodate this most desperate urge. And this industry appears to flourish in times of social turmoil, such as during the 2010 London riots, when a well known commuter tabloid asked its readers: “Want To Escape?”. But no place is more devoted to these escape fantasies than television, and especially daytime television, when you’re bound to find one of the variations of the Channel 4 hit show, A place in the Sun, where middle-class Britons are escorted through medieval villages in Tuscany or old Portuguese fishing villages, all the while eliciting long ‘oohs’ and ‘oh-my-gods’. If these dreams of a new life in a foreign country only appear far-fetched and mocking, too disconnected from your immediate reality, you will always have Ryanair and daily flights to Ibiza, Rhodes or Bari.
We suggest there is something significant here, a shift in capitalist ideology, a strange continuation of what Adorno and Horkheimer called ‘the culture industry’. For them, corporate ideology had thoroughly permeated everyday life, mainly via the organs of mass consumption and media. What was most perverse about the culture industry, they maintained, was not that it reconciled the masses to an inherently barbaric system, but that it hijacked and exploited a range of democratic sentiments: especially the yearning to be included and recognised as an equal member of the community.
But the sentiment that we find today, especially in Britain, is different to what Adorno and Horkheimer described. It is no longer inclusion that is desired. Rather we find a desire to escape. To exit the scene of power. Or even disappear. While politicians delusionally believe that the prevailing cultural imaginary is still galvanized around inclusion, business strategists have known for quite a while that the dominant desire today is that of withdrawal – mentally, phantasmagorically, and physically. What we see emerging, then, is a new industry – not the culture industry, which promises inclusion – but the escape industry, which promises another form of salvation, namely exit. This industry already exists. Corporations have discovered this widely shared desire to escape, and are now selling various forms of escape products. In so doing, they wed us even more profoundly to that from which we seek to escape – for the possibility of true exit is no more remote than deep inside the escape industrial complex.
Carl Cederstrom and Peter Fleming are the authors of Dead Man Working (Zero Books)