Introduction: Radical Historiography
In Politics out of History, Wendy Brown argues that radical forms of politics necessitate radical forms of historiography that must ‘undo the inevitability or givenness of the present’ (Brown, 2001: 164). The challenge is to historicise the present in ways that question teleological understandings of neoliberalisation and undermine ideological strategies that, in Stuart Hall’s words, ‘naturalise’ neoliberalism ‘out of History into Nature, and thus [allow it] to become invisible, to operate unconsciously’ (Hall, 1988: 8). To imagine alternative futures or alternative freedoms, then, it seems essential to historicise and thus to denaturalise the dominant and deterministic contemporary discourses of freedom and futurity. Mark Fisher terms this pervasive 21st-century structure of feeling ‘capitalist realism’, an alternative-free socio-political imaginary in which ‘capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizon of the thinkable’ (Fisher, 2009: 8). When Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the ‘End of History’ (Fukuyama, 1989, 1992), both his hubristic American triumphalism and his questionable readings of Hegel, Kojève, Marx and others were widely criticised (Derrida, 2006: 70–86; Hobsbawm, 1990). However, both Perry Anderson and Gregory Elliott have argued from the left that Fukuyama was essentially correct in his central claim that the implosion of the Soviet Union and the concurrent post-1970s crisis of Western welfare capitalism did represent an end of systemic global alternatives to capitalism, as well as an end not only to any leftist faith in unidirectional or progressive models of history, but in the broader capacity to imagine radical historical transformation at all (Anderson, 1992: 279–376; Elliott, 2008). Capitalist realism became and remains hegemonic, for now at least, even after the 2008 financial crisis that did so much to undermine neoliberal sureties: ‘the most successful ideology in world history’ (Anderson, 2000: 13). Given this global dominance, what is the capacity of cultural production to ‘pressure the neoliberal present’? (Foster, 2013: 15)
This article focuses on the contemporary historical novel, a form that Anderson argues is ‘the most consistently political’ in the ‘prose multiverse’, even as it departs from its 19th-century antecedents by exploring history not as ‘progress or emancipation, but [as] impending or consummated catastrophe (Anderson, 2011). I analyse the relationship between historical fictions and the radical political imperative to historicise the present. What models of history structure these texts? What are their strategies of historicisation, and what senses of historicity do they produce? How political are contemporary historical fictions, and if so, political in what sense(s)? Crucially, how do contemporary texts figure the origins and imposition of neoliberal freedoms and futures, and can historicising the end of history ever open up alternative forms of freedom?
A number of 21st-century British novels—including Alan Hollinghurst’s Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty (2004), David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green (2006) and The Bone Clocks (2015), Denise Mina’s Field of Blood (2006), Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting-prequel Skagboys (2011), and Will Self’s Dorian: An Imitation (2000)—return to the 1980s, and more specifically to the combination of long-term structural transformations and ideological and political conflicts, both domestic and global, which coalesce uneasily in the nationally-bounded concept of ‘Thatcherism’. In their different ways, these historical novels all figure the 1980s as ‘Year Zero’ for 21st-century Britain.1 Hall pithily described Thatcherism as the ‘scorched earth phase of British neoliberalism’, and a similar historical narrative of destructive/determining origin plays out across these texts (Hall, 2011: 18). There is a suggestive pattern of stalled subjects; arrested Bildungen; dead, abused or missing children; of AIDS destabilizing bodies and the systems of value and futurity that those bodies represent. These narratives seem to suggest that after Thatcherism, collective as well as individual futures (and by implication, our 21st-century present) are precarious, doomed, and/or defined by the absence of any possibility of change or transformation.
This article explores questions about the political and historical signification of contemporary fiction’s return to the 1980s through an extended case study of David Peace’s GB84 (2004). Peace’s fifth novel won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, was republished in 2010 as part of Faber and Faber’s Revolutionary Writing imprint, and has been described as one of the ‘most distinguished neo-1980s novels to date’ (Brooker, 2010: 216). The novel is a formally innovative and exhaustively researched (Peace, 2010: 464–65) week-by-week chronicle of the 1984–85 UK miners’ strike, which juxtaposes two distinct narratives and experiential histories. The first-person day-by-day experiences of striking miners Peter and Martin are adapted from a contemporaneous oral history (People of Thurcroft et al., 1986) and laid out in two columns of text that make them appear poised somewhere between a journalistic account and a biblical testament. Their accounts are distinct from and punctuate each chapter of the main narrative, which traces diffuse, labryrinthine conspiracies between security services, corrupt union executives, far right fixers, paramilitary groups and the Thatcher government, who are presented as the forces determining and driving the conflict. The novel has accrued significant critical attention, with particular attention being given to the historiographic significance of the interplay between experimental formal techniques and the crime genre (Beckett, 2004; Brooker, 2005); Peace’s concept of ‘occult history’ and antagonistic models of politics (Hart, 2008); and the novel’s engagement with issues of historiographic and political authority (Shaw, 2010; Shaw ed., 2011). This chapter departs from existing scholarship by analysing the ways in which GB84 historicises both neoliberal past and present through its figuration of the strike and its historical genealogies, and the significantly contradictory senses of historicity articulated by the novel.
Historicisation, Historicity, and the Miners’ Strike
The bitter industrial conflict between the Thatcher government and the National Union of Mineworkers was, David Alderson argues, ‘a, if not the, watershed in the transition to neoliberalism in Britain’ (Alderson, 2010: 2). While this article focuses on the signification of the strike in contemporary culture, its material effects and continuing legacies are also important to acknowledge. The NUM had been at the vanguard of the trade union movement since it catalysed the 1926 general strike, and miners’ strikes in the early 1970s led to widespread energy shortages and contributed to the defeat of Edward Heath’s Conservative government in 1974. The Thatcher government and its allies were determined not to repeat this outcome. A colliery closure plan was announced in April 1984 that provoked a protracted and violent year-long conflict at a propitious time for the state.2 The NUM split along regional lines, and one year later the defeated miners returned to work. The already declining coal industry was rapidly wound down, and its remnants were privatised in 1994.3 Fisher sees the watershed of 1984–85 as ‘at least as significant in its symbolic dimension as in its practical effects. The closure of pits was defended precisely on the grounds that keeping them open was not “economically realistic”, and the miners were cast in the role of the last actors in a doomed proletarian romance’ (Fisher, 2009: 7–8). The economistic reasoning used to justify the strike is exemplified by the historian Graham Stewart’s characterisation of the miners’ ‘fruitless struggle’ against Thatcherism’s imposition of the ‘impartial logic of the market’ (Stewart, 2013: 359, 8). However, both sides in the conflict conceived it as a profound political struggle about the future of more than just the coal industry. Scargill described it as an opportunity to ‘roll back the years of Thatcherism’ (Figgis, 2006), which was at that stage a not-yet-hegemonic project yet to implement widespread privatisation and deregulation. And while it is important not to elide structural and institutional forces by making the strike purely about the respective pronouncements of the leaders of the two sides, Thatcher’s comments about the NUM in her memoirs exemplify the flexibility of the naturalised idioms of economics and freedom within early neoliberal discourse:
What the strike’s defeat established was that Britain could not be made ungovernable by the Fascist left. Marxists wanted to defy the law of the land in order to defy the laws of economics. They failed, and in doing so demonstrated just how mutually dependent the free economy and a free society really are. (Thatcher, 1995: 378)
The strike, disingenuously figured here as an attack on economic laws that must be policed as ruthlessly as those on the statute book to ensure freedom for a society defined primarily as a free economic system, represented the ‘apogee of Thatcher’s campaign against organised labour’, and by the end of the decade ‘her goal of removing the trade unions from the political stage had largely been achieved’ (Green, 2006: 122, 126).
There are continuing human and economic costs of the rampant deindustrialisation of the early 1980s coupled with the coal industry’s demise. Former coalfields are among the poorest and most deprived areas of the United Kingdom by a wide variety of measures. As a recent study put it, ‘the miners’ strike of 1984–85 may now be receding into history but the job losses that followed in its wake are still part of the everyday economic reality of most mining communities. The consequences are still all too visible in statistics on jobs, unemployment, benefits and health’ (Foden, Fothergill & Gore, 2014: 37). These consequences, coupled with decades of underinvestment, continue to affect public finances negatively into the 21st-century, even if governments are keen to individualise blame rather than grapple with historical legacies and structural forces (Beatty & Fothergill, 2016: 16).
The spectre of the 1984–85 miners’ strike thus lingers in the 21st-century United Kingdom. Figuring the historicity of the conflict through spectral metaphors is nothing new. Raphael Samuel eloquently argues that historical genealogies, myth and collective memory were themselves powerful (and contested) forces within the conflict itself:
In the […] strike of 1984–85, the concrete and immediate issues were continually being overlain with symbolic reverberations of the past, both the historical past of remembered struggle, and the timeless past of “tradition”. […] [T]he strike was a war of ghosts, in which the living actors were dwarfed by the shadows they had conjured up. (Samuel, 1986: 5–6)
This sense of the strike as overdetermined, a synecdoche for wider conflicts between labour and capital, north and south, left and right, polis and state, is common in British cultural production and plays out in GB84. Suggestive too for this special issue’s considerations of freedom and agency is Samuel’s Marxian metaphor of conjuration, which recalls Marx and Engels’ description of human agents’ lack of control over the forces of contemporary capitalism, likened to ‘the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells’ (Marx & Engels, 2006: 41). In GB84, powerful historical forces are set into motion that are far beyond the control and even the perception of Peace’s political actors. Not only is a liberal politics organised around agency—both collective and individual—undermined in Peace’s paranoid history, but hidden voices and historical genealogies repeatedly surface and interrupt the novel, destabilizing the boundaries of both the diegetic present of Britain in the mid-1980s and the individual subjects caught up in the strike.
GB84 is, ideologically, a suggestively contradictory text. It critiques and historicises the ‘inevitability’ of neoliberalism by figuring its triumph and hegemony as the product of sustained and violent struggle; simultaneously, however, the very sense of history within which neoliberalism is situated is presented as a depoliticised and even predetermined continuum of violence. The novel both interrogates and enacts the narrative that the 1980s heralded an ‘End of History’ of the kind imagined by Fukuyama, after which political alternatives seem impossible to imagine and subjects remain inescapably determined by neoliberal common sense. Critique co-exists with a bleak determinism: alternative futures might have been possible once but are no longer. Yet by staging these contradictions, GB84 makes visible both the ideological ‘limitations beyond which [contemporary subjects] cannot think’ (Jameson, 2013: 308–9) and, crucially, some of the processes through which those limits (and the freedoms to act and imagine that they close off or make possible) became hegemonic. This double bind is at the heart of the novel’s historicity and its formal politics. GB84 offers a distinctive cultural case study for the complexities that lie behind any neat political injunction to ‘undo the inevitability or givenness of the present’ (Brown, 2001: 164) and in doing so to historicise the end of history.
Before moving into a close reading of GB84, however, it is important to unpack my specific use of the term historicity, which is central to the way in which this article conceptualises the historical novel and its strategies of historicisation. Historicity is defined as ‘the fact, quality or character of being situated in history; esp. historical accuracy’ (OED). This concern with historical accuracy is the most common use of the word—signifying the process of contextualizing or rooting a subject or object in the historical record. However, other, more generative conceptions of being ‘situated in history’ exist. Historical fictions often explore the dialectic of freedom and determinism—the tension, in Marx’s formulation, between the capacity of subjects and collectives to ‘make their own history’ and the structural constraints of ‘circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past’ (Marx, 1934: 10). These fictions are aesthetic re-imaginings of the ‘fact, quality or character of being situated in history’ (OED) And ‘history’ itself has multiple, coexisting and competing meanings: being a synonym for the past, a discourse that seeks to explain change over time, a body of cultural narratives about the past, and processes that connect up past, present and future (Williams, 2014: 143–5). The ‘classical’ 19th-century historical novel, according to its most notable critic Georg Lukács, staged systemic (and epochal) historical contradictions through representative ‘everyday’ characters and situations in a realistic mode, and suggested the deep interrelationships between structural forces and affective experience (Lukács, 1962). Lukacs argued that these aesthetic strategies produce ‘a clear understanding of history as a process, of history as the concrete precondition of the present’ (Lukács, 1962: 21). Lauren Berlant parses Lukacs’s famous analysis of Walter Scott in pithy terms: ‘[F]or Scott and his heirs the point of the historical novel was a paradoxical one: to become embedded in the affective life of a past moment that might have been the run-up to the future that was now a present, and to create distances from the present moment of writing whose own shared contours one can only intuit’ (Berlant, 2011: 66). Historicisation here implies a double understanding of the ‘present’ as the product of historical forces and, crucially, as itself structured by ongoing historical processes and contradictions that will shape and transform the future in turn. Jameson terms this figuration of temporalities and historical processes historicity:
Historicity is, in fact, neither a representation of the past nor a representation of the future (although its various forms use such representations): it can first and foremost be defined as the perception of the present as history; that is a relationship to the present which somehow defamiliarises it and allows that distance from immediacy which is at length characterised as a historical perspective. (Jameson, 1991: 284)
So historicity is a temporal perception that defamiliarises the present by conceiving of it as historical rather than inevitable or natural, as neither a random concatenation of determinants nor a static atemporal phenomenon. Analysing the ways in which texts produce and articulate senses of historicity usefully supplements the dominant scholarly approaches to the historical novel—the focus on epistemology/historiography (Hutcheon, 1988, 1989) and memory studies (Middleton & Woods, 2000)—to include the ways in which texts present culturally specific understandings of history-as-a-process, and figure the structuring presence of that past in the present (either of publication or reception).
Jameson sees the recent boom in historical fiction as ‘symbolic compensation’ for a ‘present-day enfeeblement in historical consciousness and a sense of the past’ (Jameson, 2013: 259). He privileges the 19th-century, broadly realist, broadly Marxian and/or progressive forms of historicity. However, it is here that I depart from Jameson, taking a less doomy and less instrumental view of contemporary cultural production. Historicity is never singular and is always itself historically contingent. Historical consciousness and cultural forms are shaped by structural, historical and technological changes, and as François Hartog argues, vary within any historical moment or mode of production, depending on geopolitical context, class, race, gender and sexuality (Hartog, 2015). Rather than conceptualising historicity as an apprehension that is ‘waning’ or lost, it is vital to attend to the specific and often contradictory forms of historicity circulating in a collective or culture, whether or not they fit existing progressive political paradigms. Through close textual analysis, critics can analyse the ways in which historical fictions dynamically engage with—rather than just symptomatically or mimetically represent—both hegemonic concepts of past-present-future relations and the ‘freedoms’ and agency possessed by subjects or collectives within the structural constraints of a historical situation.
Terminal: Historicising the End of History
So how, precisely, does GB84 historicise neoliberal freedoms and futurity through its figuration of the 1984–85 miners’ strike? Perhaps counterintuitively, it is instructive to begin at the end. In the final lines of Émile Zola’s historical fiction Germinal (1885), Étienne, the leader of a miners’ strike that has been savagely repressed by the army, nevertheless glimpses, in the fields beneath which the miners toil in the dark, the potential for a transformed future:
Seeds were swelling and stretching, cracking the plain open in their quest for warmth and light. […] And still, again and again, even more distinctly than before as if they had been working their way closer to the surface, the comrades tapped and tapped. Beneath the blazing rays of the sun, on this morning when the world seemed young, such was the stirring that the land carried in its womb. New men were starting into life, a black army of vengeance slowly germinating in the furrows, growing for the harvests of the century to come; and soon this germination would tear the earth apart. (Zola, 2004: 532)
‘Germinal’ is the first month of spring in the French Republican Calendar: a revolutionary historical schema to reorganise progressively not just time, but society with it, beginning afresh with ‘Year One’. Zola, writing long after these ideals had descended into Terror and Napoleonic dictatorship, and with a naturalist conflation of organic cycles and historical processes, nevertheless figures the seeds of radical change emerging from the miners’ defeat. Out of the miners’ struggle, hope—or, perhaps, given the ambivalence of the description ‘black army of vengeance’, just revolutionary transformation—is germinating under the ground.
GB84 figures defeat very differently. Its final section is titled ‘Terminal, or The Triumph of the Will’ and is dated ‘March 1985—’ (Peace, 2010: 451). ‘Terminal’ inverts Germinal’s faith in a sense of futurity and growth and instead intimates multiple senses of an ending: a terminal diagnosis and the cessation of a journey, or the stalling of movement or of a political movement as a final destination is reached. Furthermore, the reference to Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 propaganda film about the Nuremberg rallies associates Thatcherism with Fascistic militarism (a common accusation from the left in the 1980s) and the crushing of the strike with triumphant political spectacle. These allusions are reinforced in ‘The Last Week’ that follows. As the miners of Thurcroft in Yorkshire prepare to march back to work after their defeat, Martin Daly, whose first-person narrative has been interrupted throughout by italicised, paratactic, mythic voices from the past, sees that they are not alone. There are ‘others—From far below. Beneath my feet—They whisper. They echo. They moan. They scream. […] The Union of the Dead’ (Peace, 2010: 452). In Germinal, under the ground lay the future in embryo; in GB84, all the ground contains is the sonic remains and reverberations of the dead: ‘The country deaf to their laments. Its belly swollen with black corpses and vengeful carrion—rotting in its furrows. It waits for harvests that never come—the day their weeping will burst open the earth itself and drown us all’ (Peace, 2010: 462). Past and present blur as the miners and these spectres from past centuries of English class struggle merge into a collective voice, which is then confronted by a triumphant, nightmarish Thatcher-figure:
We are but the matchstick men, with our matchstick hats and clogs—And they shave our heads. Send us to the showers—Put us on their trains. Stick us in their pits—The cage door closes. The cage door descends—To cover us with dirt. To leave us underground—In place of strife. In place of fear—Here where she stands at the gates at the head of her tribe and waits—Triumphant on the mountains of our skulls. Up to her hems in the rivers of our blood—A wreath in one hand. The other between her legs—Her two little princes dancing by their necks from her apron strings, and she looks down at the long march of labour halted before her and says, Awake! Awake! This is England, Your England—and the Year is Zero. (Peace, 2010: 462)
And so the novel ends. GB84’s presentation of the strike’s defeat as ‘Year Zero’ goes far beyond the common presentation of that event as a ‘watershed’ moment or synecdoche for longer-term historical processes that I discussed earlier. ‘Year Zero’ is a violent act of state-sanctioned erasure, but this is not creative destruction to further a new progressive future. The monstrously sexualised Thatcher4 is more reminiscent of Pol Pot than Danton or Robespierre, with their revolutionary conception of history beginning again with ‘Year One’. Indeed, the novel hyperbolically intimates nothing less than a Holocaust of the northern industrial culture popularly exemplified by both the miners and L.S. Lowry’s ‘matchstick men’. There is no germ of change or transformation: progress, movement, and any sense of a futurity based on hope of transformation are all stalled. This is Hall’s ‘scorched earth phase of British neoliberalism’ exemplified (Hall, 2011: 18). Even the tension between past and present, and between individual and collective subject positions—expressed throughout the novel in the interplay between italic and Roman text—seems resolved. In his review of GB84, Terry Eagleton optimistically reads this ending as a ‘movingly utopian moment’ in which ‘the monologuing miner has a vision of his dead, dumped and defeated comrades marching shoulder to shoulder’ (Eagleton, 2004). However, Eagleton’s own definition of utopian thought does not bear out this analysis: ‘The best kind of utopian thought […] holds present and future in tension by pointing to those forces active in the present that might lead beyond it’ (Eagleton, 2015). This is a total victory for the combined power of state and capital, and the capacious dating of ‘March 1985—’ suggests that there is nothing imaginable beyond this ending, that its bleak stasis still defines the 21st-century present. GB84 goes much further than complicating or rejecting metanarratives of historical progress and embracing figures of catastrophe. It uses the idiom and iconography of apocalypse (Kermode, 2000) to shape and present the defeat of the UK miners’ strike as nothing less than the End of History.
So, GB84 enacts the End of History, and tacitly presents 21st-century life as post-historical. But it also simultaneously historicises that decisive ending, uncovering the forces that produced it. This may not be a figuration of apocalypse followed by renovation and renewal, but it is apocalypse-as-revelation. The closing passage quoted above contains not only literary allusions to Zola, Orwell, Dante and others. It is also shot through with references to the interconnected socio-cultural forces and contradictions that made Thatcherism possible in the first place. For example, ‘In Place of Strife’ refers to the proposed 1968 labour anti-union legislation spearheaded by Barbara Castle, which fractured the already brittle relationship between trade unions and government; ‘In Place of Fear’ refers to the 1952 socialist blueprint by Aneurin Bevan, the Atlee government’s architect of the NHS, which protested the creeping compromises of welfare capitalism; ‘The forward march of labour halted’ is the title of Eric Hobsbawm’s seminal 1978 Marx Memorial lecture about the long-term structural 20th-century decline of the labour movement, which helped to inaugurate the ‘New Times’ project associated with Marxism Today towards the end of the 1980s. It is worth noting that momentum is eschewed in Peace’s reworking in favour of duration—the phrase becomes ‘the long march of labour’.5 Even Enoch Powell’s famous 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech is invoked, not only signifying rising racist reactions to an increasingly multicultural nation and the cultural production of ‘enemies within’, but also exemplifying the crisis of authority that emerged in the late 1960s, a period whose popular libertarian discourses Thatcherism resignified to such great effect (Hall, 1983). These references are not just intertextual, therefore: they represent some of the many distinct but interlocking histories, crises and social contradictions that destabilised one historical formation—in this case, welfare capitalism, or what is often simplified in a British context into ‘the post-war consensus’—and fused into what Althusser termed the ruptural unity of the conjuncture. This phrase refers to a systemic crisis in which historical change is inevitable and from which there is no possibility of return. Stuart Hall elucidated Althusser’s idea in one of his final interviews:
A conjuncture is a period in which the contradictions and problems and antagonisms, which are always present in different domains in society, begin to come together. They begin to accumulate, they begin to fuse, to overlap with each other. The ideological becomes part of the economic problem and vice versa […] they fuse into a ruptural unity, and that’s the beginning of conjuncture. (Hall & Hay, 2013)
Although some kind of radical transformation is inevitable, there is also no singularly inevitable triumph or teleological outcome in either Althusser or Hall’s conceptions of the conjuncture—it is a model of historical transformation that challenges progressive metanarratives, be they Whig or Marxist. Inevitability is a complex and sometimes contradictory proposition in GB84’s presentation of the strike, as I’ll discuss below. Yet this nuanced understanding of multiple constitutive crises is a marked departure from the end of history as Fukuyama defines it: that is, ‘the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution’ (Fukuyama, 1989). History does not gently come to an evolutionary close in GB84—it is the result of violent conflict and struggle.
Freedom and Struggle
One example of the way in which struggle is figured through innovative formal strategies in GB84 comes when an MI5 surveillance operative reviews tapes from the Battle of Orgreave, a major conflict during the strike that often functions culturally as a synecdoche for the strike as a whole:
‘If a highwayman holds you up, it is always possible to avoid violence by handing over to him what he wants’.
HERE WE GO—
‘—on then, fucking hit him—’
[—sound of police truncheon against body—]
‘—officers down at topside holding area. MP 6, please respond—’
HERE WE GO—
‘—fuck off back where you came from—’
[—sound of police truncheon against body—]
‘—prisoners to be restrained in vans until further notice—’
‘—Commie bastards are going to lose and so is that bald bastard Scargill—’
[—sound of police truncheon against body—]
‘—exceptional DSG B. Exceptional. Drinks are on us—’
‘We are going down the royal road in this country that Northern Ireland went down in 1969’. (Peace, 2010: 140)
The miners’ anthemic chant fractures as line-by-line of charging horses and police truncheons meet bodies in T-shirts and jeans. First, they lose first momentum (‘GO’), then collectivity (‘WE’), then presence—their very existence and situatedness in the communities they inhabit (‘HERE’). The repressive state apparatus needed to enforce neoliberal freedoms are made visible: pace Thatcher, ‘the law of the land’ is a tool to implement a new neoliberal ‘law of economics’ (Thatcher, 1995: 378). Also in evidence in this passage are ideological state apparatuses: propaganda and the resignification of the strike through drawing potent historical parallels. The then Home Secretary Leon Brittan describes the strikers as lawless highwaymen, intent on daylight robbery of the British taxpayer through subsidy of the coal industry.6 The past is a homiletic, allegorical resource, used to characterise the picketers as criminal anachronisms, and the strike a simple matter of right and wrong.
The spectre of civil disorder and sectarian violence that dominated Northern Ireland during The Troubles is also invoked here as a cautionary tale of allowing violent civil conflict to proliferate. However, the speaker is unclear, and the analogy between Northern Ireland and the strike is flexible in GB84. The Conservatives regularly drew parallels between the Fascist military junta who ruled Argentina during the Falklands/Malvinas war, ‘the enemy without’, and the NUM, ‘the enemy within’ who were ‘much more difficult to fight’ and ‘just as dangerous to liberty’.7 A similar interrelationship was also suggested between the NUM and the IRA, especially following the latter’s attempt to assassinate the Thatcher government at the Conservative Party conference in November 1984. However, elsewhere in GB84 the role of the British state in catalysing and proliferating the violence in Northern Ireland is emphasised, as well as the parallels between the advanced surveillance tactics used on Republicans and the NUM: ‘Operation Vengeance. Imported from Ulster. Updated for Yorkshire’ (127). Martin reflects that the violence displaced and projected onto the colonial/postcolonial margins of Britain and refracted through the media is shockingly relocated to ‘home’: ‘I can’t close my eyes—Petrol bombs. Burnt-out cars and buses. Huts and portakabins on fire. […] Horses and dogs out—Like something you saw on news from Northern Ireland. From Bogside—Never thought I’d live to see anything like it here. Not here in England. Not in South Yorkshire’ (Peace, 2010: 322). The police description of miners as ‘Zulus’ (Peace, 2010: 139) in the Orgreave tapes similarly positions the strike within a history of colonial violence by the British state, and suggests a sneeringly primitivised characterisation of the miners as savages resistant to progress.8 The neoliberal ‘Freedom of Cash’, ‘Capitalism and Opportunity’ (Peace, 2010: 134) espoused by the NCB Chairman and Thatcher’s fixer Steven Sweet requires the aggressive resignification, marginalisation and violent suppression of dissenting voices and freedoms. Thatcher’s media pronouncement that ‘[t]here would have been neither freedom nor order in Great Britain in 1985 if we had given in to violence and intimidation’ (453) is rendered bitterly ironic, when compared with the miners’ view of their own use of violence as a last resort in their desperate attempt to extricate themselves from harm: ‘Bricks and stones. That’s what it takes to save us. […] I fucking throw them and all—First fucking time. This is what it’s come to for me—To make them leave me be. To save myself. To get away. To be fucking free—’ (282). Thus the miners’ defeat—and by association in GB84, with its metonymic understanding of the strike, a 21st-century present defined by neoliberal hegemony—is the product of sustained, violent struggle in multiple arenas.
But how inevitable is this neoliberal hegemony? After all, struggle can be valiant but ultimately predetermined in its consequences—that is a structuring principle of classical tragedy. In GB84, the strike is being determined by shadowy, extra-parliamentary forces: capitalist special interests, the security services, even the neo-Fascist occultists that are near obligatory in Peace’s work. Neil Fontaine, Sweet’s fascist fixer, plans and predetermines the climactic battle of Orgreave long before the pickets occur: ‘He opens his eyes. He sees—Batons. Shields. Horses. Dogs. Dust. Blood—Victory. […] The Jew will have his victory—Here. […] “Orgreave”’ (Peace, 2010: 78–9). Any political resolution is certainly doomed to fail. Official negotiations based around managing dissensus through compromise, as well as parliamentary democratic processes—two mainstays of liberal political discourse—are revealed to be sideshows. Official negotiations and mediation are torpedoed repeatedly by informants and agents. Random events can occur that tip the conflict one way or the other, such as the potential strike of NACODS, a union of pit deputies legally required to keep a mine open, which would have meant almost instant defeat for the government. However, these contingencies are finessed by special interests in a way that allows no outcome but defeat for the miners. The strategies of union leaders, Scargill’s egotism and court culture are critiqued (Peace, 2010: 33, 71, 403), and Parliament is represented as peripheral, a hardly-mentioned forum for ‘bankrupt fucking bickering’ (Peace, 2010: 190). Individual actors are reduced to a depersonalised function via antonomasia: Scargill is ‘The President’, Thatcher becomes ‘The Prime Minister’, National Coal Board Chairman Ian MacGregor is ‘The Chairman’, and Thatcher’s organiser Stephen Sweet (based on David Hart) is referred to as ‘The Jew’. Combined with Peace’s fusion of paratactic modernist experimentation and terse, abstract ‘hardboiled’ prose, this rhetorical strategy has a powerful cumulative effect. These are not characters with any sense of realist interiority or motivation, but types, performative roles in a labyrinthine political process that is never the real centre of power: ‘Bright lights, smoke and mirrors’ (7). Eagleton frames the synecdochic conflict as one in which political actors were ‘playing’ parts, performing ‘scripts’ that imbued the strike with a ‘tragic inevitability’:
Both parties to the conflict had their eyes set on its world-historic importance. There were two scripts and scenarios in play, one brief and brutal, the other a matter of an age-old antagonism stretching back to the Chartists. […] Whatever the stake[s] being played for, then, it was certainly not just the coal industry. It was as though the individual characters involved […] were simply stand-ins for historical forces in a drama that had a smack of tragic inevitability about it. It was a showdown that history, or at least the shift to a post-industrial Britain, was going to stage sooner or later. (Eagleton, 2004)
For Eagleton, history as a process, or the unfolding and interrelated historical processes of deindustrialisation and neoliberalisation, stage and determine this metonymic conflict. Peace’s is undoubtedly a paranoid history: conspiracy drives his fictional reimagining of the strike, but unlike in his Red Riding Quartet of novels, there is no detective/journalist to assume the implicit role of historian and provide clarity, explanation, if not redemption. However, his conspiracy narrative chimes in many ways with Eagleton’s Marxist analysis of the strike as inevitable (even if its outcome was not predetermined) and Samuel’s analysis of the conflict at the time as ‘a war of ghosts, in which the living actors were dwarfed by the shadows they had conjured up’ (Samuel, 1986: 6).
The Neoliberal Longue Durée: Naturalising Unfreedom?
Questions of inevitability, the capacity for freedom/agency and historicity also overlap in the novel’s presentation of the strike’s spectral historical genealogies. As previously discussed, GB84 unfolds in two distinct registers that rarely interact directly, far from the aesthetic/historical totality that Lukács identifies as the ideal mode to capture the relationship between affective experience and structural forces. Cause and effect are estranged. Each chapter begins with the first-person perspectives of miners Peter and Martin, whose dialect voices are themselves underlain by other italicised historical voices that often irrupt into and disrupt the diegetic present of the strike. In this example, Martin and his wife Cath are unaccountably prevented from driving freely by a police officer:
Turn your vehicle around or you’ll be arrested. I start car. Martin, she says. He can’t do this. I say, Yes he can. Yes, he bloody can—We warmed your houses. Your kitchens and your beds— […] Half-nine by time I get home. Cath’s already in bed. Thank Christ—We drove your dreams. Your cities and your empires— (Peace, 2010: 40)
In the diegetic present, Martin’s agency and freedom of movement are being limited by state forces beyond his control, and at the same time his individual present tense point of view is interrupted by a mysterious, fragmented third-person past collective voice. The interplay between roman and italic text here suggests a dialogic relationship between surface and subtext, present and past: a reminder of the miners’ foundational status in the historical development and material ‘metabolism of the Western world’ in the face of a sustained attack (Orwell, 2001: 18).
These fragments can also be assembled into something more cohesive. In this example, hidden across over a hundred pages of the first part of the novel, a plaintive poem exemplifies the profound interrelationship between historical narratives, articulations of history-as-a-process and formal strategies within GB84:
The dead brood under Britain. We whisper. We echo. The emanation of Giant Albion.
We suffocate. We drown—
You took us from the mountains.
You took us from the sea.
You took us from the wild-fields.
You took us from the whale-roads.
We warmed your houses. Your kitchens and your beds—
We drove your dreams. Your cities and your empires—
We fuelled your fears with our raven-wings—
You threw us in a pit.
You showered us with soil.
Put us in the ground—
To drown. To suffocate—
Under the ground.
Under the ground, we brood. We hwisprian. We onscillan. Under the ground we scream.
This subterranean collective voice, drawing on William Blake’s mystical poems Jerusalem: The Emanation of Giant Albion and ‘The French Revolution’ (Blake, 2004: 162), suggests that what underlies the miners’ struggle and their individual subjectivities is a long history of industrial and colonial exploitation, in which the reader is uncomfortably implicated by the second-person address (‘You took us’). The process of forced expropriation followed by forced disappearance is figured as the material base of contemporary Britain. Perhaps paradoxically, given the highly poetic diction, the central process of mining in the expansion and enrichment of Britain is demystified. Reading/hearing this voice involves hermeneutic difficulty, both in either encountering it in fragments or painstakingly piecing it together, and in encountering another language: Old English. ‘Hwisprian’ means to whisper or murmur; ‘onscillan’ means to resound.9 Peace’s distinctive fusion of hidden histories and spectral tropes is often framed as ‘occult history’, a term that Matthew Hart cogently unpacks:
In an interview with Mark Lawson, [Peace] explains that the adjective in “occult history” signifies the state of being hidden or occulted more than the realm of the supernatural. In this sense, then, “occult” refers to the unknown or obscured elements of British political history […]. But this is only part of what Peace means by that phrase. For that term has implications beyond the uncovering of things we do not know. With its connotations of haunting and ritual violence, “occult history” suggests that the political history of Britain—and the narrative form required to uncover that history—is subterranean in more than one sense, a matter of bodies that will not stay buried as well as stories that have not been told. (Hart, 2008: 577–8)
In Hart’s analysis, the past has its own mysterious, determining agency in the present—it is not merely a narrative to be discovered and told, but something that actively, if chaotically, structures contemporary life. Peace’s palimpsestic model of the subject is one in which, to quote Marx, ‘the consciousness of the past weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living’ (Marx, 1934: 36). Fisher, in his discussion of Jacques Derrida’s concept of hauntology (Derrida, 2004), describes the spectre or ghost as a figure to be ‘understood not as anything supernatural, but as that which acts without (physically) existing’ (Fisher, 2014: 18). And it is this idea of a past that has an unseen or even immaterial agency within both individual consciousness and collective historical experience that best elucidates GB84’s spectral historicism. History, understood in this sense at least, can never end; but crucially, any concept of ‘freedom’ is radically constrained by the recursive deterministic and deterministic power of historical forces that defy rational comprehension.
Hart describes the historical voices in GB84 as an ‘obscure undermythology’ (Hart, 2008: 578), but this undervalues the precise historical genealogies within which the novel seeks to frame the late 20th-century triumph of neoliberalism. In the passage quoted above, for instance, a precise historical parallel is being drawn by the use of Old English and the Anglo-Saxon kennings (‘whale-roads’, ‘wild-fields’ [Peace, 2010: 20]).10 The voices of the miners are being blurred with those of the victims of the Harrying of the North, a ‘scorched earth’ campaign following the 11th-century Norman Conquest that aimed to destroy the powerbase of Anglo-Saxon elite society through killing and starving the inhabitants of Northern England, and was pursued with a violence that was ‘unusually brutal even by the harsh standards of the day. […] Much of the land was still deserted a generation after’ (Tombs, 2015: 43–4). This violent imposition of an Anglo-Norman elite class has even been framed in colonial terms (Coldiron, 2004: 214). Peace has commented that early drafts of GB84 contained even more Old English and that the Harrying was an important parallel to illustrate in his retelling of the strike (Shaw, 2010: 86). The Harrying is a widely mythologised act of foundational violence (Tombs, 2015: 49–52) for a millennia-long history of exploitation, which prefigures the novel’s apocalyptic take on Thatcherism’s ‘scorched-earth phase of British neoliberalism’ (Hall, 2011: 18), as well as a conception of Englishness defined by recursive north/south violence. In Peace’s novel, the strike is not just repeating earlier 20th-century labour antagonisms; instead, history in the longue durée is characterised as a recursive process of violence and subjugation. Fisher suggests that GB84 ‘is the first of Peace’s novels in which the possibility of any sort of group-subject is raised. More typically, his characters are solipsistically alone, connected only by violence, their only shared project dissimulation’ (Fisher, 2005). However, what the interaction between the first-person miners’ voices and the collective history of exploitation suggests is a ‘group-subject’ actually connected by these very experiences of violence and unfreedom.
Indeed, the novel situates the strike within other histories of violent conflict. Time slips recur throughout the text, often prompted by violence in the diegetic present, and progressive temporality regularly breaks down: ‘bloody Middle Ages [,] Dark Ages’ are not safely past (Peace, 2010: 68). Neil Fontaine, driving the interstitial ‘lawless Yorkshire borderlands with Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire’, a boundary between striking and non-striking miners that would eventually split the NUM, sees figures in the road: ‘Roundheads lead their horses across the road. Bloody. They are beaten. In retreat. The steam rises from the backs of their horses to meet the rain. To wash away the battle. Neil Fontaine blinks. He starts the car. He pulls out of the lay-by. Back to Orgreave—’ (Peace, 2010: 112). Later, he encounters more spectral presences on the roads: ‘Cavaliers struggle with the broken wheel of a wagon. Purple-frocked men bark orders in the rain and mud. Crosses around their necks. Rings on their fingers—’ (Peace, 2010: 148). It is unclear how the 17th-century Wars of the Three Kingdoms, a complex political conflict about parliamentary sovereignty and an over-mighty executive power, maps onto the 20th-century battle between state and union in GB84, described by Peace as ‘The Third English Civil War’ (Peace, 2010: 137). The 15th-century Wars of the Roses are also invoked and repeatedly surface in the present. In the following passage, miner Peter is caught up in a violent clash at Orgreave, which blurs the distinction between conflicts past and present:
CRACK—He’d felled me. This copper—Listen to the voice. Ground was hard—The voice saying, Follow me. Sun right warm—Follow me. Lovely on my face—My father used to take us as a lad to many of fields from Roses and Civil Wars: Wake-field. Ferry Bridge. Towton. Seacroft Moor. Adwalton Moor. Marston Moor—Picnics in them fields. Flasks of tea in car if weather was against us—Photograph of me somewhere, squinting near Towton memorial on a Palm Sunday. Snow on ground—He was dead now, was my father. Ten year back. I was glad he was, too. Not to see me in this field. Here—Orgreave. South Yorkshire. England. Today—Monday 18 June 1984. Puke down my shirt. Piss on my trousers—I was glad he was dead. I closed my eyes—Forgotten voices. A lost language. A code. Echoes—Like funeral music. Drumming was. They beat them shields like they beat us. Like we were air. Like we weren’t here—Here. Now—I opened my eyes. (136)
Violence shatters the boundedness of the ‘Here. Now’—the Battle of Orgreave in 1984—and Peter reflects on the ways in which historical conflict is memorialised as part of a safe heritage culture. Visiting battlefields was a social activity for Peter and his father, a means of renewing intergenerational connections to the regional and national past. Yet there are also levels of eerie historical repetition in this passage that undercut any easy sense of generational continuity. The battle of Towton occurred on a snowy Palm Sunday (mirroring the photograph) in 1461 and is considered one of the most destructive in English history (Carpenter, 2002: 149). Shakespeare famously presented it in Henry VI, Part 3 as a chaotic bloodbath in which fathers killed sons and sons killed fathers without realising who their opponent was—the epitome of violent conflict taking on an apolitical logic of its own that is highly destructive to national and familial bonds (Shakespeare, 2001: 2.5). Martin’s experiences both echo this history and reveal the sanitised ways in which it has been naturalised into the landscape of modern Yorkshire. Yet it is important to note here that the miners are not being associated with any particular subject position in either of these historical conflicts. The battlefields mentioned include Yorkist and Royalist, as well as Lancastrian and Parliamentary, victories and defeats. The defining feature of this palimpsestic sonic history is violent conflict, rather than any specific political trajectory, genealogy or account of British history.
Conclusion: Historicity and Critical Contradiction
GB84 is not the only contemporary historical fiction about the 1980s to situate neoliberalisation within a longer durée than post-war British history. The Line of Beauty draws subtle parallels between late 19th-century and late 20th-century neoliberal financialisation by presenting Victorian architecture as a kind of proto-postmodernism: an ahistorical bricolage that has become naturalised over time but was once ‘ostentatiously new’ (Hollinghurst, 2004: 54). Through this juxtaposition, Hollinghurst’s novel subtly questions the novelty of neoliberal financial reforms. In David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, which spans 1984–2043, the miners’ strike is the starting point of a future history defined by energy crises. Britain is presented as an irradiated failed state, reliant on Chinese capital and energy and teetering on the brink of collapse and barbarism (Mitchell, 2015). And in his earlier 1980s-set bildungsroman Black Swan Green, Mitchell figures the violent nationalism and exploitative economics of Thatcherism as a highpoint in the transhistorical cycle of venality and fear that defines Mitchell’s work. In GB84, the neoliberal transition in Britain is historicised within a thousand-year longue durée. Hart argues that GB84 advances an essentially antagonistic historical conception of political life (Hart, 2008: 591–3). But I would argue that in fact this longue durée actually presents a strangely depoliticised historicisation of the strike. Brown defines depoliticization as the effacement of political causation in favour of either individual, natural or cultural causation:
Depoliticization involves construing inequality, subordination, marginalization, and social conflict, which all require political analysis and political solutions, as personal and individual, on the one hand, or as natural, religious, or cultural on the other. […] Depoliticization involves removing a political phenomenon from comprehension of its historical emergence and from a recognition of the powers that produce and contour it. (Brown, 2006: 15)
GB84 does not present neoliberalisation as the outcome (or fault) of individual political actors—there is no Great Man (or Woman) model of history underpinning Peace’s text. In fact, individuals are presented as having very little freedom to act rationally act in meaningful ways. Nevertheless, the ‘powers that produce and contour’ neoliberal Britain are primarily figured as an incongruous fusion of natural and cultural forces: a thousand-year continuum of violence and oppression. How long does a longue durée have to be before it becomes naturalised—an underlying ‘fact’ of human experience? GB84 offers a kind of Marxism stripped of any emphasis on process and systemic contradiction, but retaining as the central motor of history an agonistic class conflict between oppressor and oppressed: ‘one long, long scream of places and names, terror and treachery’ (Peace, 2010: 288). It offers a nuanced, formally innovative deconstruction of the historical subject—consistently structured by voices and perspectives from the past, determined in complex ways that transcend rational or empirical comprehension by ‘messages from the dead’ that nevertheless act as ‘tocsins’—alarm bells—for the living (Peace, 2010: 315). And yet its historicisation of neoliberalism within the longue durée of history as a continuum of conflict is paradoxically transhistorical, a depoliticised historicisation that risks naturalizing the very object of its critique: the ongoing legacies of the End of History.
GB84 is such a compelling case study because it represents a distinctive, undoubtedly extreme and experimental engagement with what is nevertheless a common, perhaps even constitutive cultural narrative in Britain: that after Thatcherism, to quote one popular history, the ‘political future was settled. People no longer talked about capitalism and or its alternatives, because they expected the capitalist system to last forever’ (McSmith, 2010: 303–4). That confidence is now far from widespread. However, the words of Stuart Hall, writing in the wake of Thatcher’s third general election victory in 1987, still feel apposite even after the financial crisis: ‘What Thatcherism poses, in its radical way, is not “what can we go back to?” but rather, “along which route are we to go forward?” In front of us is the historic choice: capitulate to the Thatcherite future or find another way of imagining it’ (Hall, 1988: 162). Of course, so much has changed since 1990—Britain does not occupy a clearly Thatcherite future, nor were the 1980s really the neat watershed in the process of neoliberalisation that they represent in collective memory. But neoliberal freedoms still define the futures available in the Western political and cultural imaginary. Historical fictions like GB84 do not figure political paths through the contemporary impasse; in fact, they are only political in profoundly ambivalent ways. However, they nevertheless have immense critical potential. Jameson argues that ‘one of the great indispensable functions of ideological analysis [is] to show the contradictions in which we are ourselves imprisoned, the oppositions beyond which we cannot think’ (Jameson, 2013: 308–9). The futures a society can imagine represent in many ways the limits beyond which it cannot think. And GB84 makes visible these limits through the kinds of historicity it articulates, figuring the contradictions that seem to define the horizons of many forms of contemporary oppositional politics: that the neoliberal present is the product of often violent political and ideological contest, but that a future based on similar contest and transformation seems impossible to conceptualise; that the dominant political idiom is still based on the agency of the sovereign subject, and yet a pervasive determinism often seems impossible to challenge. The contemporary historical novel might not figure freedom after neoliberalism, but it does experiment with narrative form to figure the ways in which freedom under neoliberalism became hegemonic.
- As in David Mitchell’s short story ‘Preface’, in which the 1980s is figured as a collective childhood and likened to Genesis and Deuteronomy: a mythologised period of tabula rasa, birth and emergence that establishes the laws and norms—economic, political and moral—that determine subsequent history and subjectivity (Mitchell, 2006). [^]
- Recently declassified cabinet papers have undermined the government’s claim at the time that there was no wider plan to wind down the coal industry (Higham, 2014). The possibility of coal shortages causing blackouts, a powerful practical and symbolic tactic that the union employed during the 1970s, was made less likely by beginning a strike going into the less energy-intensive spring and summer months. Furthermore, over-production by the NCB and a concurrent decrease in demand caused by the early recession of the 1980s ensured there were significant coal reserves (Green, 2006: 113–21). [^]
- Fierce debates about the strike as an application of economic ‘realism’ continue in academic and popular historiography (Benyon ed., 1985; Milne, 2014; Vinen, 2010: 155–77; Howell, 2012), and are complicated further by the increasing awareness of the deleterious effects of fossil fuel emissions on global climate, sustainability and ecosystems. [^]
- The meeting of this monstered Thatcher-figure and the ‘Union of the Dead’ can also be read as a nightmarish reworking of the famous frontispiece to Thomas Hobbes’s classic work of political theory Leviathan (1651), by the artist Adrian Bosse. In GB84, the body politic is dangerously fractured and violently subjugated by its sovereign head, belying any concept of a social contract. [^]
- Hobsbawm’s essay, with its long duree approach to labour history, is often misunderstood to be simply a response to the conjunctural crisis of the late 1970s that created the terrain in which neoliberalism became hegemonic. The debates that the essay prompted between 1978–1981 in Marxism Today offer a snapshot of the left’s diffuse responses to the early years of neoliberalism in Britain. (Hobsbawm, Jacques & Mulhern, 1981). Contributors include the editors Tony Benn, Raymond Williams, and a number of leading trade unionists. [^]
- Brittan is quoted in Anthony Bevins and Craig Seton, ‘Thatcher refuses to yield over Orgreave mob’ (1984: 1). [^]
- Thatcher first made the analogy in a speech to the conservative 1922 committee in 1984. [^]
- The miners’ first-person narratives evidence a globally-informed historical consciousness. Police tactics and the rewriting of the law are likened to ‘fucking Nicaragua’ (Peace, 2010: 264); miners hiding in trees ‘dangl[e] like strange fruit off branches’ (Peace, 2010: 238). [^]
- Please see entries in the Old English Thesaurus. Available at: http://oldenglishthesaurus.arts.gla.ac.uk/oehead2.php?groupx=02.05.10.16&word=hwisprian http://oldenglishthesaurus.arts.gla.ac.uk/oehead2.php?groupx=02.05.10.04&word=onscillan [Last accessed 14 August 2014]. [^]
- ‘Whale-roads’ and ‘wild-fields’ are kennings: ‘periphrastic expressions used instead of the simple name of a thing, characteristic of Old Teutonic, and esp. Old Norse, poetry’. Available at: http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/102922?rskey=r5BLiN&result=2&isAdvanced=false#eid [Last accessed 20 August 2014]. ‘Whale-road’ is taken directly from Beowulf (10). [^]
The author has no competing interests to declare.
Christopher Vardy is a lecturer at the University of Manchester. He is currently working on a book exploring figurations of Thatcherism and the End of History in 21st-century British culture. He co-edited the collection Rupert Thomson: Critical Essays (Gylphi, 2016), and has published articles on the relationship between nostalgia, materialism and adolescence in British historical fiction; the figure of the abused child as a metaphor for historical change; and the political significance of dystopian figurations of the 1980s.
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