Through gritted teeth, and with a great deal of injured English pride, I must reluctantly concede the following: the French have a purpose, beyond serving as fodder for Richard Sharpe and Horatio Hornblower. This uncomfortable realisation was sparked by watching Paris bury a general with full military honours, eulogised by the Minister Delegate to the French Minister of the Armed Forces.
Right now, Russia is the most 40k country on earth
This in itself would have been slightly out of line with British attitudes towards the military post-Iraq, but what illuminated the gulf between us was the fact that Charles-Etienne Gudin died over 200 years ago in Napoleon’s war in Russia. This passing of time was not seen as particularly relevant. He was a French general who had died in service to France; France as a civilization continued and honoured its dead servants; he would therefore be honoured.
What discomforts me is that I’m not sure I could see this happening in Britain, a country going through an extended bout of iconoclasm. We poke fun at French pretentiousness but there is probably something healthier in a country which takes pride in itself, aggressively asserts its values internally and abroad, and understands itself as existing in continuity with its past.
It’s not wholly clear to me that Britain could actually express clearly what its values even are. Any attempt to describe them tends to result in a vague statement about being open, tolerant, and liberal, but these are not uniquely British so much as “Western” (or at a pinch, WEIRD).
Definitions by their nature tell us what is not part of a set just as much as what is; a set of values which would allow us to distinguish what it means to be culturally “British” as opposed to “American” or “Canadian” is avoided because it would be exclusionary. This leaves us with a set of values so watered down as to be practically meaningless, and an uncomfortable question: to what extent can a country claim to be a continuation of what came before if it rejects it utterly?
Deconstructing one national identity may be a necessary step, but that leaves a void for a new one to be created. Who in Britain today might merit the sort of state-led pomp and circumstance afforded by Paris to Charles-Etienne — David Attenborough? Gareth Southgate?
The distinction between aesthetics and underlying objective reality is not as hard as it seems. Human beings being what they are, any movement at its core contains a degree of live action roleplaying (LARPing); fake-it-until-you-believe-it. Commentators knocking young Catholics and other conservatives for mimicking the behaviour and rituals of a bygone age miss the point entirely; acting like the person you want to be is the most natural way of becoming them. Believe you are an ape without free will and one course of behaviour is suggested; believe you are an immortal soul created by a loving god, and you turn to another. Having an idea of your country as the inheritor and protector of a civilisational legacy produces one pattern of behaviour; seeing it as a sort of large-scale shopping centre filled with individuals who act as they will and care mostly about GDP produces another.
What’s useful here is that Britain, for its many flaws, has proved adept at producing narratives people want to buy into. The only logical way to put these facts together is to go to the furthest possible extreme, and devote ourselves to LARPing in the cause of national survival.
It seems to me that dystopia is more suited to the British mindset than utopia. “Things can always get worse” is a staple British saying, as is “things can only get better”. And while “it’s all downhill from here” has its admirers, it’s still fundamentally an expression of underlying British pessimism. As for which dystopia, the Warhammer 40,000 universe has won devotees across the world (and is of course maintained by a team of inspired nerds based in Nottingham); seeing the American right adopt and adapt depictions of the God-Emperor to laud Donald Trump — subsequently brought to life as an Italian carnival float — if nothing else confirms the curious memetic allure of a hobby consisting of assembling, painting, and fighting small battles with small miniature soldiers.
My modest suggestion is Britain lifts itself from its current malaise by seizing the memes of cultural reproduction. Right now, Russia is the most 40k country on earth. A formerly great empire that once dwelt on the technological frontier, now fallen into relative backwardness, shorn of its former territories, and led by an increasingly detached and unquestioned palace desperate to reclaim them. An imperial church inextricably intertwined with the state, providing theological justification for its wars. Armies of conscripts marching behind ancient tanks dating from the height of its imperial power, wars fought by artillery, discipline maintained by the knowledge that what lies behind the frontlines is worse than what lies in front. This is a country which takes Orthodox priests blessing SU-27 jets in stride as something perfectly natural.
We already have a byzantine and largely uncaring bureaucratic state
The Russian Cathedral of the Armed Forces may be archaeofuturism as applied government aesthetic; it is also extremely Warhammer. Icons of saints sit side by side with depictions of soldiers and Russian heroes. The steps leading to the cathedral are made from steel melted down from captured German tanks, the floor from Nazi trophies. The main arch spans 19.45 metres, marking the conclusion of the Great Patriotic War. The comparison is so obvious that a video looking for suitable technological-gothic-futurist soundtrack settled naturally on the music from a Warhammer 40,000 video game. Internal dissenters calling the building a monument to a “cult of victory” are correct; it’s a monument to Russian civilisation and its military prowess. And Britain can do it better.
There are two ways the UK can go about seizing its rightful crown as the most narratively coherent highly dystopian country on earth. The first is to embrace Gothic excess to a ludicrous degree; intern Queen Elizabeth on the Golden Throne, gifting her immortality and confirming everyone’s long held suspicion that the Tower of London would fall before Charles became king, mandate that all buildings be ornamented to the very limits of their structural integrity, and insist that if you can’t do business in that environment then you simply can’t do business.
This may well have deleterious effects on the 40% or so of our GDP composed of recruitment agencies hiring marketers who advertise recruitment agencies, but then I’ve long suspected that was a sort of closed-loop populated by low-level machine intelligences hoping no-one will notice the patent absurdity of their business model or that no money ever leaves it to pay for food or water. I would hope that any loss thereby incurred would be made up for by a surge in the incense, vellum, and quill industries, or at least the project to colonise the moon in the name of Her Britannic Majesty.
I suspect we’d be quite good at this. We already have a byzantine and largely uncaring bureaucratic state in place, so the creation of a sufficiently complex and insane administration is basically halfway there already. We have plenty of looming dystopian brutalist buildings, and crumbling gothic masterpieces. Tacking on a few additional layers of theatrical stupidity is not going to be a gigantic stretch for a country which still maintains a Royal College of Heralds to govern the issuing of coats of arms and provide the Queen with assistance when conducting her duties.
The only viable alternative for defeating “goblin mode” — clinical depression as a mode of civilisational failure — is to tip the scale all the way over to the other side, indulge our love of beer, football, and building strange contraptions in sheds, and embrace our inner Ork. After all, nothing’s so serious it can’t be a bit of a laugh too.
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