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Red flags vs blue jeans in the Cold War
‘Miriam works at a public radio station. Recently, she was asked to make a program on Ostalgie parties - where if you show an East German ID you get in for free, everyone calls one another ‘Comrade’ and the beer is only DM1.30. She says, ‘Things like this feed into a crazy nostalgia for the GDR…. Most of the people at these parties are too young to remember the GDR anyway. They are just looking for something to yearn for.’
Anna Funder, Stasiland
I didn’t grow up thinking that the formal division of Europe into western and eastern blocs was odd. For my first decade or so I didn’t think about it at all; it didn’t affect me, apart from during one family holiday in Greece when an elderly Corfiot warned us not to take our pedalo too close to the Albanian coast in case we drew fire.
The Berlin Wall was ten years old when I was born in 1971, but - like air travel and mains water - its genesis lay in a previous lifetime, and for small children there is no material difference between ‘how things are’ and ‘how things have always been’.
In the early ‘80s, just as I started to pay more attention, the Cold War got steadily hotter. This was not an isolated crisis like Cuba in 1962, but an insistent state of alarm, with Britain - Airstrip 1, the 53rd state, just over 500 miles from the East German border - a priority target. It was variously stupid, incomprehensible, menacing and explicitly frightening. (I initially started the previous sentence with the words ‘For a child…’, but I suppose it was like that for everyone.)
It was also very dramatic. Every couple of months the news would erupt into screaming headlines in 36-point Jan Leeming: martial law in Poland, an animatronic Yuri Andropov on a Red Square balcony, missiles arriving at Greenham Common, Protect and Survive leaflets. In popular media Warsaw Pact countries were portrayed as grey, menacing wastelands. The BBC serialisations of le Carre’s Smiley novels were suffused with menace, and Alec Guinness as Smiley - all clipped ‘50s poshness and understated patrician authority - sounded like the narrator of the public information films that advised us to move away from the windows when we heard the four-minute warning. The charts were full of pop acts politely requesting global leaders not to kill everyone. As I said: dramatic.
Everything was hysterical, and you had to pick a side. ‘80s Britain had prepared us for this by regularly requiring us to choose between two dogshit options: Ian MacGregor or Arthur Scargill, the IRA or the SAS, the Sun or the Mirror. When we got old enough to choose, a combination of teenage contrarianism and our actual environment made it difficult to identify strongly with the Western side. Growing up with three million unemployed and no memory of Stalin or the Prague Spring, outrage about Communism didn’t jam with our priors.
The Cold War in Britain in the ‘80s was conceptualised not as liberal democracy versus brutal repression but as capitalism versus socialism, and the most visible and enthusiastic proponents for capitalism - really, the most visible people in the early ‘80s, full stop - were Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Their brand personality consisted of old age, bad hair and laughing at poor people. If they were on one side, you wanted to be on the other. (Thatcher, a world-beating pugilist, relished this binary framing: she told Conservatives that ‘As socialism goes down all over Europe, so it will be in Britain. And tomorrow, as today, will be ours.’ Yikes.)
By this time politics in the UK had already become a branch of the marketing industry, and the distinction between consumer choice and political choice was vanishing. British ad-men bestrode our world like permed colossi. We were steeped in a culture that was being shaped by the most sophisticated marketeers on the planet, and we couldn’t encounter anything without making a rapid and subconscious assessment of its brand worth. To our practised consumer eye, the Western brand stank: policemen’s batons, Cecil Parkinson’s sexual incontinence, Jive Bunny records. Communism, viewed from a great distance, had authenticity and a certain stout élan. CCCP badges and hammer and sickle flags were heritage trademarks, like Levi’s 501s and Liberty prints. To be an earnest young leftie was to plump for Team Brezhnev.
In reducing this great ideological and human conflict to a consumer choice - requiring little more deliberation than whether we preferred Pepsi or Coke - we had simply internalised the market; we were capitalists in our bones. The irony was that even as we badged ourselves up as Marxists, displaying our copies of The Communist Manifesto and wearing ‘Better Red than Dead’ t-shirts, the brainworms of mode were turning us away from the ordinary Eastern European people who were desperately semaphoring their preference for the Western model. On the rare occasions we saw them on the TV - usually when they were raising a batsqueak of protest about the wholesale repression of their personal liberty - we were repelled.
The economic division had bled into the culture and thickened like glue; we had Virgin Megastore and Bladerunner, they had state-approved trousers and chess. Their clothes were forever about five years out of date, the most unforgivable interval. (Ten years signals insouciance, fifteen years signals style, and after 20 years everyone is wearing it again, with enough subtle differences to require wholesale remanufacturing.) In everyday cultural currency - the denominations of clothes, pop music, blockbuster films, TV - they seemed like giant losers, younger cousins who would not stop following you around. The only thing they had that we envied was their regime insignia.
As Naomi Klein wrote in the early ‘90s in No Logo, in our short lifetimes branding had ‘slithered into every crevice’. At some level we could see that whatever Communism was (and we really didn’t know), it wasn’t that. The performance of British politicians, journalists and voters who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s has been largely disastrous. But perhaps, in mitigation, that’s because we have seen far too much of how the sausages get made, and acquired a sophisticated understanding of all the wrong things. In our youth - the glory days of the Soho agencies - Thatcher brought Saatchi into Downing Street. Kinnock and the young Mandelson introduced the Labour rose icon, kicking off decades of discourse about the parties’ logos. Under Blair, presiding genius Philip Gould came hotfoot from his advertising career to carry out a brand refresh. Politicians everywhere began to talk about their ‘retail offer’; Ed Miliband’s 2015 manifesto was knowingly satirised by Twitter savants as ‘vote Labour and win a microwave’.
Political parties slice and segment lists of voters in exactly the same way that your employer manages its CRM: which voters are doorstep ‘conversation priorities’, which are a dead loss, which will only give you their vote if you physically take them to the polling station. Brand-loyalist, brand-curious, brand-rejector. Millions of people are explicitly ranked as low priority because their constituencies or brand loyalties are not in play; as with car insurance, if you don’t threaten to switch your provider you will be mugged off.
In 2016, when Vote Leave busily used all the targeting tricks available to any Facebook advertiser, it was revelatory to see how many people were outraged by it: older people who didn’t understand how Facebook worked, younger people with a more robust sense of transparency and privacy. (Parties justify the wholesale manipulation of voters’ personal data as ‘necessary for reasons of substantial public interest’). My peers and I just shrugged. Why wouldn’t they do that? Why wouldn’t any political movement? It was perfectly legal. It’s what I would have done, had it been my job.
Steeped in the grammar of marketing, we understand ourselves as user groups deliberating over a political offer. We observe, distantly, how we consume political messaging: the difference between the messages that arrive on channels crafted for us (ABC1, Southern, urban, graduate) and the messages we glimpse on channels we were never supposed to see. We feel clever for understanding how it’s done; perhaps our sense of cleverness and our dislocated cynicism, our refusal to give ourselves wholly to any brand, is our only remaining defence. Our experience of politics consists of too much sunlight and not enough bloody magic.
It is the particular genius of capitalism that it not only allows for political dissent, but that it embraces it and commodifies it and sells it back to you as Katherine Hamnett t-shirts. Consumer boycotts are the flipside of the same dynamic; the most immediate and practical way to express a political viewpoint is to withdraw not your labour but your direct debit and your brand affiliation. Anti-capitalist radicals are reliably infuriated when it’s pointed out that they use iPhones and pay £3 for a flat white. It’s infuriating because there’s no good rebuttal; there’s no way out. Only sociopaths can be citizens of capitalist economies while ignoring the demands of capitalist socialisation. As the great Marxist academic Stuart Hall observed, everyone pops into Sainsbury’s for a sandwich on the way to the demonstration.
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In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) George Smiley has a meeting in a jail cell with a captured Soviet spy who is using the name Gerstmann. Gerstmann has come out on the wrong end of a Soviet power struggle; if he returns to Moscow he can expect to be shot. This is an opportunity to persuade Gerstmann to defect, but Smiley finds he cannot say it with his whole chest. He tries to deploy worldliness, aiming to embrace Gerstmann in a conspiracy of cynicism about the hollowness of both ideologies: ‘Don’t you think it’s time to recognise there is as little worth on your side as there is on mine?’
Smiley’s argument for choosing life in London or Paris or Washington instead of Moscow comes down to simple pragmatism; if you go back, you will probably die. ‘I didn’t promise him wealth and women and Cadillacs and cheap butter; I accepted he had no use for these things… I didn’t make speeches to him about freedom, whatever that means.’ But he has catastrophically misjudged his opponent, who rejects Smiley’s pitch with wordless contempt. Gerstmann, who under the trade name Karla will become Smiley’s nemesis, is an ideologue. He would rather be shot within the Soviet Union than live outside it.
There is a gap between the brand promise and the reality of any political offer, a gap that can be comfortably filled only by blind ideology or cynicism. As generations of marketers have discovered, telling the truth gets you nowhere. Bar a couple of novelty campaigns that have few admirers outside Marketing Week, no product is promoted on the premise that it performs acceptably some of the time. No party activist will knock on your door before the next election to tell you that the next five years are going to be quite shitty under their party’s plans, that you will have to pay higher taxes just to maintain public services at their current inadequate levels. It is deeply uncomfortable to throw your energies into supporting something that is merely imperfect, a bit better than the alternative. Instead you wait for the challenger brand to make a mistake.
I arrived at university just before the fall of the Wall. One night in November 1989 I barrelled into our common room to find a bunch of nerds watching the news: footage of thousands of East Germans escaping into neighbouring countries, leaving miles of abandoned Trabants behind them. (Trabants, the mass-produced Eastern Bloc car, are, inevitably, very chic now; as chic as a long weekend in Kreuzberg, the Hackney of East Berlin.) TV pictures from Berlin - on both sides of the Wall - showed mullets and moustaches, and fuck me is that David Hasselhoff? My friends and I asked to switch channels so that we could watch the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth instead.
It is to my particular shame that I was studying history; if I had any cards, I’d hand them in. I am tempted to style this out as a generational failing - we preferred a comedic rehash of decades-old events to actual history-in-the-making, that’s so Gen X. But that particular episode of Blackadder Goes Forth isn’t much of an escape from reality anyway. It’s famous for a devastating tone-shift in the final scene, as our heroes go over the top and die for real.
Anyway, I knew at the time that changing the channel was a dick move; I remember that evening so clearly because I was embarrassed. I didn’t return to the common room to watch the TV when the Wall came down a couple of days later. I didn’t want to see what was happening. I had an uncomfortable sense that I might have picked the wrong brand, and I needed to move on quickly. As Control says when he hears what Smiley said to Gerstmann about the West: ‘I like you to have doubts. It tells me where you stand. But don’t make a cult of them or you’ll be a bore.’ And for the smart young socialist, there is nothing more off-brand than that.
For more on growing up during the Cold War, check out Chris Waywell on the frankly terrifying Threads: