Tomorrowland aimed to surf a wave of ‘positive thinking’ when it was released in 2012, driving forward an upbeat Coke-style ‘teach-the-world-to-sing’ can-do refrain. The illusory victim-blaming sub-text to positive thinking is designed to separate out those who can succeed from the rest, the losers. It was no surprise that it was a Disney production – it is named after one of the rides at Disney’s own theme parks – but neither was it surprising that it lost money at the box-office, mainly because the audience couldn’t work out what was going on. Too dumb, perhaps, all the worse for them. Tomorrowland pretends to be open and inclusive, but it’s actually geared to an exclusive club.
George Clooney stars as the adult Frank, who, as a boy, had visited the 1964 New York World’s Fair and, through a chance encounter with a girl android, Athena, visited ‘Tomorrowland’. This world to come is some kind of high-tech futuristic parallel world, the tomorrow that could be, one that is potentially present around those who touch a magical T-symbol badge, a magical badge destined for ‘special’ individuals to visit and make tomorrow happen. Adult Frank, a demoralised recluse after having been expelled from Tomorrowland by David Nix, an evil-doer who is intent on sabotaging this super shiny version of the future, is mobilised by teenager Casey. She gets her T-badge after repeatedly hacking into the NASA base at Cape Canaveral to try and prevent the decommissioning of the US space programme.
Casey, when reprimanded by her dad for struggling to keep this technological dream alive, throws back at him the story of the good positive wolf and the bad negative wolf. Which is the stronger? The moral is that the stronger of the two is the one you feed, and she matches Frank’s new enthusiasm for the possibility that the technological Tomorrowland will happen – ‘We are the future’, he says – with a desire to feed the right wolf. She’s had enough of being told how bad things are at school – nuclear war, climate change, social breakdown – and voices the key message of the film: ‘I get how bad things are, but how can we fix it?’ Evil David Nix has prevailed up to now because he has persuaded people that they can’t make a difference and that things can’t change for the better. Politics as such is named as part of the problem. Frank and Casey succeed by the end of the film, opening up vistas of progress as T-symbol badges appear around the world for the gifted who will lead us into Tomorrowland.
Tomorrowland tried and failed to key into pragmatic optimistic commonsense, to embed itself in one of the dominant forms of ideology under late capitalism, the idea that technology can triumph, that experts should lead, and that politicians get in the way. This is exactly the ideological worldview that ‘Spiked’ aims at, adapts to and replicates. Spiked is a case study of what happens when a left-wing group is led by a sociologist who has taken his comrades through their own blinding moment of disillusionment to be reborn as libertarians scornful of the old left they successfully separated themselves from.
Spiked, which today carries the tagline ‘Humanity is underrated’ on its website, has its origins long ago as the Revolutionary Communist Tendency (RCT) and then Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), emerging from a 1978 split from the Revolutionary Communist Group, itself a split from International Socialists, which was a previous incarnation of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Even then, RCT/RCP activists were more stylish than the rest of the left, often referred to as the SWP with hair-gel. The group re-launched itself as a magazine ‘Living Marxism’ in 1988, folding up in 2000 after being made bankrupt by a dispute over the existence of Serb concentration camps which they claimed were faked up. By then, ‘LM’ (these initials only by now because the word ‘Marxism’ was becoming rather an embarrassment and the claim that Marxism was still ‘Living’ was rather rubbing in the wrong message) had outflanked the pessimistic diagnoses of the end of the old left project made by the disintegrating Communist Party in its ‘Marxism Today’ series on postmodern ‘New Times’. LM’s ‘Midnight in the Century’, authored by professor of sociology Hungarian Frank Furedi, an unlikely role for George Clooney in a future biopic, argued in 1990 that the crisis was worse than we could have imagined, and that the crisis in the left was irremediable.
The RCT/RCP sent comrades onto graphic design courses, devoted itself to media interventions ready for its reboot as Living Marxism, and eventually disconnected itself from the rest of the left, notoriously siding with the Union of Democratic Mineworkers during the 1984-1985 miners strike, and bit by bit took up a specialist niche position as contrarian anti-left commentators. Siding with the Serbs during the civil war and disintegration of Yugoslavia was one first step, and the next steps included hailing the possibilities of nuclear power and, since its rebirth as Spiked (and a host of front organisations such as the annual Battle of Ideas) pouring scorn on protests against the invasion of Iraq, linking with climate-change deniers and siding with Israel during the attack on Gaza.
This drift to the right has enabled and been fuelled by a concern with social diagnoses from outside the Marxist tradition – set reading at the still-functioning internal organisation meetings are typically classical sociological texts set by Frank – and this has also made conversation with ‘policy-makers’ easier. To engage in sociological babble about the ‘elite’ chimes better with policy wonks than old talk about social class. Hapless sellers of Living Marxism during the late 1990s were already finding it difficult to justify their presence outside left events, claiming that they wanted nothing more than to promote ‘debate’, and now this ‘debate’ apparatus is in full bloom, ranging from the Battle of Ideas to the ‘Debating Matters’ events in schools and prisons. For some obsessive critics they are everywhere, with their tentacles through the media, and they love this exaggerated importance given to them, feed off it.
The rationale for the turn to ‘debate’ is precisely to side-step traditional ‘politics’, especially left politics, and to draw libertarian politicians and intellectuals ranging from Nigel Farage to Roger Scruton away from politics as such into ‘debate’, to enable a new generation of gifted leaders to emerge who will lead us into Tomorrowland. Spiked has spawned a new generation of younger activists who are well-suited to the new ideological climate, sons and daughters of old LMers are leading campaigns to trigger Brexit Article 50, for example. This then led the group to do a deal with Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, a lash-up which gave them access to EU and then British parliamentary seats, after which they were quickly out-flanked by the Tories who moved to deliver everything Farage had promised.
This strategy means cheering on the destruction of the welfare state – the ‘Nanny State’ that tells us not to smoke and how to think, and opposing censorship of all kinds as being the work of the thought police in the media and on the campuses. Frank inveighs against ‘dumbing down’ of education and against victim culture – a mantra that neatly links Spiked to the concerns of the new right – and his followers search out all manner of ways in which we are told how vulnerable we are rather than how inventive we could be. The twist is hat this involves a turn to the right, to a concern with order rather than change; Frank Furedi’s 2020 book on ‘borders’ includes praise for national boundaries, for the Orbán regime in Hungary, and for biological boundaries between the sexes, a favourite transphobe motif of late.
There is some truth in their warnings about ‘victim culture’, of course, but for all of the complaints about the ‘liberal elite’ telling us how to behave and think, this is a message for the elite: forget the gloomy predictions made by the old left, the question for Spiked is how can we can fix things. The possible technological future is within our grasp, if only we would change our negative mind-set and dedicate ourselves to making it happen. Don’t buy it. To be frank, this boils down to nothing more than thinking positively about ‘debate’, subscribing to Spiked, and hoping that being awarded a T-symbol badge will enable you to touch tomorrow now.
This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the English Left through Film project.