The 2010s, or whatever we want to call this decade, ended on Boxing Day 2019. Specifically, they ended at around 8 a.m. GMT, when the prominent British lawyer and political activist Jolyon Maugham beat a fox to death with a baseball bat in the garden of his London home while wearing his wife’s kimono. And then tweeted about it. Which led to it becoming international news.
We must imagine Jolyon Maugham – greying, bespectacled, and with a big square head like a slab of granite — arising early morning, the day after Christmas, to see the animal trapped in the wire netting surrounding the chickens he keeps in his back garden, snarling and struggling. There is a stillness in the house, as the rest of its residents — Jolyon’s wife, various members of the extended Maugham family — sleep off the festivities of the previous day. But not Jolyon.
Staring out from the window of his bedroom, Jolyon watches the fox: sleek, red and swift, a reminder that even in a metropolis like London, there are parts of non-human nature that can still flourish. He, like the fox, is totally naked — but this, perhaps, is all the two creatures share. Jolyon is free, powerful: a public figure in the truest sense, a man who over the past three or four years has done far more than most to shape political discourse in the U.K. This, after all, is the man who took the government to court to stop them proroguing parliament to force through No Deal Brexit; the man who could have been the U.K.’s Emmanuel Macron, if only the 2017 general election hadn’t come so damn early.
Jolyon feels this power in his mind as he practices his work; at times like this, he feels it in his body too, striding the corridors of his home, lord of all he surveys. The fox, by contrast, has no power: This animal is a mere scavenger, a thief; a desperate, wretched thing. And now the fox has become trapped, trying to steal Jolyon’s chickens. Well, well. There are those, Jolyon knows, who would profess to find this creature beautiful. He is not one of them. Jolyon can look upon the fox only as he does the people who voted to Leave the European Union — with hatred, and some pity.
Then, for a second — but only for a second — the fox wrenches its head upwards, to look up at the window, back at Jolyon. Their two gazes, the lawyer and the trapped animal, meet. What is it that we see, in the eyes of animals, when they look into ours in this way? What connection can we feel, with the wild? How might it transform our understanding of ourselves?
I don’t know what Jolyon Maugham saw in that fox’s eyes that morning. I don’t know if he saw something that changed him – that unleashed some wild beast in him, or else some strange, disastrously misapplied pity. I don’t know if the fox’s gaze simply bounced off his glasses, and never met his pupils – that Jolyon would have behaved the same way anyway. The only salient fact is that seconds later, Jolyon has thrown on the nearest item of clothing he could grab, and is marching out to the fox, clutching a heavy bat.
The weapon thuds down on the fox’s head, somehow softer and more muffled than Jolyon would have thought it would be. The animal snarls, and wheezes in pain. Jolyon takes another swing but mistimes it, hits the fox in the neck. He hears a crack, as if of bones breaking, but still the animal seems to be struggling. At the third, the thing tries to flinch, the chickenwire digging deeper into its flesh. Jolyon gets it in the side of the head. The animal slumps and falls still. A fourth and a fifth blow are brought down, then a sixth to make sure. As he walks back indoors, Jolyon feels the blood still wet on his hands. He reaches for his smartphone.
I don’t know what Jolyon Maugham saw in that fox’s eyes that morning.
In this single moment, as Jolyon Maugham’s fox blood-encrusted fingers mashed a boastful confession into his touchscreen, all of the key forces which shaped this strange decade came together, to cap it in a single, brutal image — satirically condemning both its protagonist and the world that has formed him. As far as I understand things, these forces are:
- the climate crisis and our utter inability to do anything about it; our increasingly violent and stupid attempts to subdue a nature we can no longer hope to control.
- The “culture war” between a resurgent far-right, and an increasingly irrelevant political centre; the inability of the “softer” elements of the political establishment to offer any sort of coherent alternative to barbarism.
- The transformation of human consciousness through social media.
Maugham, clearly, stands at the center of at least two of these trends. In the U.K., Maugham seemed simply to Manifest in the wake of the Brexit referendum: one of like three or four distinct individuals with the first name “Jolyon” (a name which I would previously have assumed someone had made up as a joke) who seemed to spring up on social media fully-formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus, outraged at the result and determined to win back their once-unassailable right to go on skiing holidays without needing to apply for a visa (reporting on the fox incident as headline news, the Daily Mail just straight-up blurbed Maugham as a “prolific tweeter”. Of these various Jolyons, Maugham — who is often referred to as “Windmill Jolyon” because he also owns a windmill in Sussex — has been by far the most active and committed fighter of Brexit.
But despite Maugham’s obvious energy and resourcefulness, the political movement he represents can only be described as one of the least-successful of all time. At every turn, the Remain hardcore have, in their apparent attempts to resist Brexit, helped push and push the U.K. towards its most regressive and destructive version. If, in 2017 when the Tory party lost their majority, the various Remain parties had collaborated with Labour to deliver a Brexit in which the U.K. remained in a permanent customs union with the EU, then (a) Brexit would have already happened by now; (b) it would have been much more difficult for the Tory right to use Brexit to push Britain in an increasingly backwards direction; (c) there would not just have been an election in which the fact of Brexit not having happened yet allowed the Tories to win in a landslide. But instead, dogmatic Remainers like Maugham and his allies clown-carred every realistic chance they had of doing this in favour of attempting to reverse the referendum result wholesale.
In short: in place of analysis or ideas, the political centre have only been able to respond to Brexit — that is, the thin end of the Tory right’s nativist wedge — with a huge and nebulous online meltdown.
This March, the “People’s Vote” campaign drew over a million protesters to London, marching to secure a second EU referendum; around the same time, a government petition on the issue received over six million signatures. But now, with the benefit of hindsight, the whole thing can only really look like a years-long process in which a bunch of once-uncomplicatedly respected figures — public intellectuals and others who either were or are considered top professionals in their field — grew more and more addled by a vote not going the way they thought it would until pretty soon they were blaming everything on Russia, hinting that they might start a new political party called “The Rational Front,” unironically trying to strategize around their belief that an entire general election might be declared null and void, and deciding that the British public might realistically join them in an anti-Brexit general strike.
In short: in place of analysis or ideas, the political centre have only been able to respond to Brexit — that is, the thin end of the Tory right’s nativist wedge — with a huge and nebulous online meltdown. A similar thing (of course) has happened, and is still happening, in the US and the “#resistance” to Donald Trump, who himself started his political career on social media. And, likewise, U.S. centrists will almost certainly manage to gift four more years in office to Trump by spitefully attempting to undermine a left-wing candidate who would almost certainly have delivered everything they’re ostensibly campaigning for (cheers lads). Other once-respected figures have used social media to go even further off the deep end; meanwhile, establishment journalism has consistently proved unable to handle the sort of direct audience feedback that social media enables.
So trends (2) and (3) are intertwined — and they also very much intersect with trend (1), the climate crisis. The rise of the far-right has thus far been associated with the sort of violent enforcement of border controls that any future “eco-fascist” government will need to keep out refugees from areas that are becoming uninhabitable. Meanwhile, the contemporary far-right have thus far proved highly adept (in a way that the centre and left simply haven’t been) at exploiting the sort of erosion of liberal-democratic political institutions that has been enabled by global tech companies — whose infrastructure is itself helping to accelerate climate change. Said companies have (often) made their money by running social media platforms, which have helped make it more difficult to combat climate change by (i) gamifying discourse to further prioritise easy sentiment over the hard work of genuinely rigorous analysis; (ii) making people feel like they are able to participate in reality solely by posting about it. These factors have helped cement the pseudo-activity of “raising awareness” about an issue as a substitute for action. With climate change, it can often see that “awareness” is all we have: a horrible, crippling Awareness, which — unless something very major changes — will intensify every summer until it is Too Late.
These trends must all be understood together — but we can never quite seem to get a proper handle on them, and certainly not all at once. We know, perhaps dimly, that we need to consider all this stuff holistically — but how can we even begin to? There is simply too much happening, too much going on: it is all too quick, and too strange. Everything Happens So Much.
Maugham was doomed, his brain broken by the changes in consciousness wrought over the course of the past decade — and so the nature he exists within is doomed.
Into this otherwise incomprehensible rush of noise has stepped Jolyon Maugham, beating a fox to death with a baseball bat in his wife’s kimono and tweeting about it. The action itself was as horrific as it was ridiculous — but thinking about it, and the circumstances in which Maugham was able to do it, can I hope be genuinely useful.
Consider: Maugham, the archetypal social media centrist, strutting into nature brandishing a crude weapon — the sort of thing you’d be forced to use in the early levels of a video game. The fox is trapped and needs his help — needs Maugham to think carefully, just for a second, and take the few simple, sensible steps available to him to help free it (as was later made very clear to Maugham, a call-out service to free trapped foxes is run by the RSPCA. But Maugham, it seems, was unable to do this: in the back of his mind, one senses, he was already thinking that beating a fox to death on Boxing Day would make a hell of a story for his followers on Twitter. Maugham was doomed, his brain broken by the changes in consciousness wrought over the course of the past decade — and so the nature he exists within is doomed. Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of the whole fox debacle is that it seemed somehow fated, pre-ordained: anticipated not only by Maugham’s previous tweets about threatening foxes with baseball bats in his wife’s kimono, but by the “Jo Swinson kills squirrels” meme, and by the TBEU “Oliver Laughdugry” account (an anti-Brexit lawyer clearly inspired by Maugham) having his dog put down so he can dedicate himself to fighting Brexit full time.
We must take the image of Jolyon and the fox as our anchor — as one single moment, at the end of this current division in calendar-time, in which the massed forces of history currently battering us have taken it upon themselves to crystallize, and briefly stop. Let the next decade, which dawns beyond it, be the one in which we find the strength to confront these forces as a whole.