“What if there’s no one out there?” asks the Doctor. He’s inside the Brannigans’ floating car, stuck in gridlock.
What if the world ended when you weren’t looking?
“Someone’s got to ask, because you might not talk about it, but it’s there in your eyes. What if the traffic jam never stops?”
“There’s a whole city above us,” says Brannigan, “The mighty city state of New New York. They wouldn’t just leave us.”
“In that case, where are they?” counters the Doctor. “What if there’s no help coming, not ever? What if there’s nothing? Just the motorway, with the cars going round and round and round and round, never stopping. Forever.”
What if the whole system is an utterly insane roundalay, going nowhere, getting noplace, just leaving everyone stranded, doing nothing but belching out endless clouds of toxic smoke? What if the crisis is permanent. What if normality is the crisis? What if everyday life is the end of the world?
Walter Benjamin said that history was a train crash, and revolution was when the passengers pulled the communication cord. The people of New New York left it too late to pull the cord. Capitalism crashed around them, shattering as one of their products ran out of control (a bit like, say, a stock market or a credit system). In the story, the product was a patch that managed mood. It was a palliative against the horror, which only intensified the horror. The Heaven of the state was depopulated, leaving lofty council chambers full of skeletons. The Hell of the lower levels filled up with fumes, and monsters of the repressed started to breed within them. And Limbo filled up with the survivors.
“Shut up! Just shut up!” cries Valerie, Brannigan’s wife.
Sally Calypso appears on the screen. “This is Sally Calypso, and it’s that time again. The sun is blazing high in the sky over the New Atlantic, the perfect setting for the daily contemplation.”
“You think you know us so well, Doctor,” says Brannigan, “But we’re not abandoned. Not while we have each other.”
Contrary to what most pop-culture will tell you, ordinary people are generally pretty damned good to each other in the aftermaths of disasters.
There’s a sense in which the amazing co-operation to be found, for the most part, in Tahrir Square and Occupy, was something akin to mutual aid in the aftermath of a disaster. Under capitalism as it stands (or tries to stand) every single day is the aftermath of a disaster. Prescient in so many ways, this episode.
The people of the gridlock are all locked away from each other in their seperate boxes, the way capitalism locks us away… but in the aftermath of the ongoing disaster of modernity, they’re also making lives and friendships and networks of support.
“This is for all of you out there on the roads,” says Sally, “We’re so sorry. Drive safe.”
And everyone in gridlock starts to sing in unison. This may be another patch, another mood stabiliser… but it is also a real and material act, an act of solidarity. The BLISS patches were just commodities. The songs are communal, social acts.
Marx wrote that religion was “at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.”
One thing we can’t do is think of religion, in some abstract and ahistorical way, as The Problem. You end up like Dawkins or Hitchens, sniping at a symptom while tolerating and enabling the illness. ‘Gridlock’ was broadcast during the heydey of ‘New Atheism’. In his blustering attack on religion, God is Not Great, published the same year ‘Gridlock’ aired, Christopher Hitchens decorated his prose with erudition ransacked from a dictionary of quotations, but never once mentioned Shelley, co-author of the very first atheist pamphlet published in English. You’d think that’d warrant a mention in a book that finds space to blither on about Mel Gibson and make tasteless jokes about child abuse. But Shelley wasn’t just an atheist, he was a leveller too. He criticised religion, as Marx would one day put it, “not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.” Hitchens, by contrast, wanted religion to fall so that the offices of Vanity Fair were never likely to be bombed by Islamists, no matter how many Arab children the US government slaughtered.
What is noticeable about the hymns sung by the gridlockers is that the comfort comes not from the songs themselves, but rather from the unity found in singing them. The congregation does not exist to sing the hymns, the hymns exist to unite the congregation. The congregation comforts itself and it protests against the need for comfort.
These people accidentally created a post-hierarchy world without realising it. They survived the fall of capitalism, and now live in its ruins.
If they can just think their way out of their boxes.
If they can just clear the smoke…
“What if there’s no one out there?” the Doctor asked. But there is. Probably not God, as far as I can tell. Probably not the government, not when the crunch comes anyway. But there are lots of people out there. You are not alone.