What of anglofuturism?
Time to be the Britain AI thinks we are.
Would algorithms run our country better than elected officials?
Questionable, perhaps, but it’s certainly true that AI has articulated a more compelling and uniting future for Britain than anyone in Westminster has in my lifetime; Bing AI image generator has allowed people to create an aesthetic manifesto of Anglofuturism, and Twitter abounds with visions of a new Britain.
The aesthetic is clear. In expanded cities, gentle density housing in historic architectural styles is towered over by skyscrapers. Darting through them and linking them together are various forms of low-carbon public transport, enabled by energy abundance. It’s a vision that exhibits at once both a complete mastery of and deep respect for the natural environment, and to both build big and build beautiful.
Of course it isn’t real. But who’s to say you can’t enjoy the euphoria of what could have been, if only for a moment?
Anglofuturism is equal parts doom and hope. It’s hope that another Britain is possible; one that has re-staked its’ claim to the future, whose pillars of accomplishments tower above the horizon, that is not only glorious but glory, and not only powerful, but power. Yet it’s aesthetic doomposting, an artistic expression of a future nostalgia that mourns ‘not for a pristine past, but a future that never was’.
It was first bought into the mainstream by Aris Roussinos’ essay ‘It’s time for Anglofuturism.’ The Sacred Text. Aris’ central argument is that the current political model has run out of road:
The fundamental problem facing Britain today is the collapse of this chosen model, the fruit of a previous, lesser era of crisis. Instead of shoring up the state’s resilience to the pressures of an increasingly unstable world, the reliance on market forces has left the Government increasingly unable to impose order, provide functioning healthcare, keep the lights on or put roofs over people’s heads: a state that cannot provide these basic functions is really no state at all.
And a new politics, therefore, must loftily rear its’ head and end this self-induced sickness;
Of necessity, in a world without a convincing successor ideology, this new model of politics must be pragmatic and non-ideological. Centred on restoring the basic functions of statehood, it must unite Labour voters as well as Tories, socialists and conservatives.
Aris’ essay ends on a hopeful note; ‘it is time to reject decline and embrace a better future’ he writes. ’It’s time for Anglofuturism.’
But, as yet, it remains firmly aesthetic. It’s no more real than the houses we aren’t building, the rail tracks we aren’t laying and the land we aren’t reclaiming. But consider for a moment: what if it wasn’t? Why couldn’t Britain actually progress again, instead of just grinding on? What great barriers stand in the way of making Anglofuturism more than an aesthetic dream?
Aris argues that Anglofuturism is borne of a need to ‘a campaign for the basic functions of the state: streets that are safe to walk, homes to live in, healthcare for those in need, universal access to food, warmth and shelter.’ Anglofuturism should be based on the idea that, amidst the tumult of the raging seas, the state represents a lifeboat. It will need to recognise, as Michael Ignatieff writes, that:
The state cannot protect citizens from their own mistakes, but it must be there to protect them from systemic risk, from those national or global economic storms that threaten their pensions, savings, investments, and employment. What effective sovereignty means for an average citizen is that their state has some real, even if limited, capacity to protect them from economic harms that are not their fault.
But I think that Aris is slightly mistaken in that he thinks the state is incapable of delivering this basic capability. The state could quite easily keep providing these basic functions, but its’ capacity is limited and almost entirely occupied by a vast range of non-essential (and often conflicting) activity. He argues that ‘We will, for the next decade at least, perhaps longer, be forced to live in a simpler, sparer way. The fat will be cut off, now we have entered the lean years.’ I welcome it, frankly; the state is fatter than a suckling pig.
The underlying problem is that Thatcher’s maxim of ‘eventually you run out of other people’s money’ has come true. As Aris points out, an economic model that has created ‘the illusion of prosperity… Through shifting domestic industry abroad and encouraging mass immigration of low-wage labour at home’ has resulted in 20 years of stagnating wages, declining industry and declining competitiveness. Hence, we now have poor public services paid for by the highest rate of taxation since the war. And we had a war to pay for then.
Anglofuturism will require a state that does a lot less, but performs that more limited role more capably. I would argue very strongly that most people don’t care how much we spend on the Border Force as long as it actually protects our borders - but they do mind how much we spend on the Arts Council, on point of principle that it’s not something government should be funding in the first place. We are not just talking about a bonfire of the quangos; we are talking about a radical reprioritisation of the state’s responsibilities.
It will need to redirect the efforts of the state, rather than constrain them. As Aris argues, ‘We must demand a wartime level of mobilisation focused on state resilience.’ The problem is that, should our political class be equipped with a literal army of teens via National Service, they can conceive of nothing for them to do except community volunteering.
This is a symptom of the unwillingness - or inability - to face up to the changing nature of our political environment. Westminster seems ignorant of ‘the pressures of an increasingly unstable world’ and remains focussed primarily on questions of redistribution. That’s why we see a conveyor belt of huge government programmes to address societal ills, of which Labour’s state-backed toothbrushing programme is an excellent example.
This is a symptomatic of a politics that is still captured by ‘the existing model’ Aris predicts is dying; it’s still concerned with redistributing the spoils of the victors, rather than creating an economy that raises the standard of living for everyone. And redistributive approaches are all well and good when there is enough to redistribute. But there isn’t anymore.
To move beyond, Anglofuturism will need to re-prioritise our politics in favour of national resilience. This is the ‘Anglo’ part of the project; lying out an active agenda that takes difficult decisions to ensure citizen’s living standards are protected and improved. And it will be delivered through ‘Futurism’ - the glorious infrastructure projects the AI conjures up, , ‘built now to secure the lives and prosperity of our descendents’, that improve the standard of living for everyone.
Both large and small-scale nuclear projects would allow us to develop energy abundance, reducing the cost of greener environmental choices, enabling energy independence and protecting our citizens from the effects of world events. Aris also writes of ‘vast arrays of domestically-manufactured wind and wave power stations.’ Is Anglofuturism capable of recognising that the green agenda can be a spur to growth and an opportunity to reshore an engineering base in the UK, but that pursuing it can’t entail a decline in living standards?
Removing the artificial constraint of the greenbelt to the expansion of successful towns and cities, whilst redeveloping them with medium density housing, would allow local economies - like Oxford, for example - to fulfil their potential as economic powerhouses. Both these would help protect Britain’s countryside, both from suburban sprawl and the demands of energy production.
But delivering the glorious infrastructure projects and new towns that will sustain that new economy aren’t possible under our current planning system; Anglofuturism will need to implement planning reform and force necessary infrastructure improvements through. If interventionism is what is required to rebuild our manufacturing base, to reduce our dependence on energy imports and to make sure Britain has a transport infrastructure that can still transport people in 20 years, then Anglofuturism must be interventionist. The same goes for the ‘revived industrial strategy’.
But futurism isn’t just building. It’s about creating an environment which, as Aris writes;
harnesses the optimism and high modernism of the post-war era, a vanished world of frenetic housebuilding and technological innovation where British scientific research could lead the world, and produce higher living standards through its fusion with well-paid, high-skilled labour.
Some of this will generate naturally through the agglomeration effects of successful towns, and demands for highly skilled engineering jobs generated by building, operation and maintenance of large-scale infrastructure projects. However, we are stuck in an economic model that has relied on stagnated wages, and productivity has flatlined as a result of businesses relying on low-cost human capital over physical capital. But importing cheap foreign labour is not a sustainable way to run an economy (not to mention that diversity also comes with costs). Reducing immigration to pre-Blair levels (at a minimum), therefore, will be a necessary start to reverse this, but the pill must be sweetened; tax breaks on R&D and investments in physical capital – such as machinery – for businesses would help encourage and ease the transition.
Aris also argues that Anglofuturism will need to look ‘beyond the electoral cycle.’ It’s hard to think of policies that will enable that; it’s arguable that the only place it’s possible to look beyond the electoral cycle is one-party local governments. Richard Leese, for instance, managed 25 years in Manchester, and the lifespan of a devolved metro mayor is currently much higher than the PM.
At times, the development of powerful local economies has been constrained by central government, impoverishing the nation as a whole. It’s easy to argue, too, that more decentralisation would help deliver more transport infrastructure; if politicians in Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester had been able to raise taxes and spend it on infrastructure, HS2 would already be built. And Northern Powerail. But for every Manchester there is a Liverpool, and for every Birmingham there is a… well, Birmingham. Further devolution of infrastructure development may help deliver a more coherent patchwork of transport infrastructure. Further fiscal devolution, however, may be a disaster.
This deals solely with the material issues of Anglofuturism. There are cultural issues too; the aesthetic is less twee than the conception of Britain we’re used to and more confident too, in both its’ past and future selves.
But really, the greatest barrier to Anglofuturism is, as Aris describes, one of politics rather than policy; ‘Westminster’s desperate political preservation of a rapidly collapsing system in which no one believes.’ It is an intellectual stagnation, a lack of national ambition from politicians who are limited, willingly or unwillingly, by the poverty of our political model.
The greatest missing element to Anglofuturism is the ability to articulate a compelling and uniting future beyond the aesthetic. When Margaret Thatcher became leader, during a Conservative Party policy meeting, she famously removed her copy of Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty from her handbag, slammed it down on the table and declared, “This is what we believe.” That act was a physical manifestation of how she intended to run her government: Her will be done. Anglofuturism is yet missing both its Hayek and it’s Thatcher; a politician, bloodily single minded in their drive to deliver on a vision, and a sage to guide their path.
The latter, of course, must come first. So we must ask; when is Aris’ next book out?
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