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Pre-millennial tensions

As the countdown to the twenty-first century begins in earnest, James Heartfield weighs the times and finds them wanting

The army has been placed on standby, with territorial units prepared to deal with the emergency. What emergency? The millennium. Ministers fear that the inability of computer clocks to cope with the transition from 31.12.99 to 01.01.00 could cause chaos throughout public services, from traffic lights to hospitals to emergency service switchboards, and plunge the nation into chaos.

There is little scientific basis for these fears (see Mark Beachill, 'Are you ready for Year Zero Zero?', LM, July/August 1998). Instead the widespread anxiety about the Millennium Bug in our computers and home appliances is an incarnation of the fin de siècle mood that surrounds the arrival of the year 2000. There is the technical problem of the date change in computers, then there is the Millennium Bug, which is something wholly different.

Already the government has set up a special task force to cope with the Millennium Bug, with Tony Blair calling for 20 000 'bug busters' to be set to work to correct the problem. But the first public action of the task force has been to issue leaflets trying to allay public fears that washing machines, microwaves and toasters might take over our homes at the stroke of midnight.

On past experience we can be sure that the one predictable outcome of government assurances will be to aggravate those very anxieties. The possibility that the institutional expression of those anxieties, the Millennium Bug task force, will be able to set them to rest is, to say the least, unlikely. Indeed it is inevitable that the task force will fail to solve the problem of the Millennium Bug, because the bug is not a technical problem in our computers, but a phantasm of popular anxieties that will yield to no technical solution.

What could be an occasion of public celebration, the millennium, instead sums up the gloomy assessment of our times, with its mood of introspection and fear of the future. With the army now mobilised against the passing of time itself, it seems likely that the computer nerds' stopgap solution to the Millennium Bug - reset your clock to 1980 - will become the general response to the approach of the millennium itself.

While secular fears of the future fixate on the mysteries of the computer clock, one might expect the Catholic Church to take a more positive view of their messiah's two-thousandth birthday. But the new papal encyclical finds John Paul II embracing postmodern despair rather than giving a message of hope. Noting that postmodern 'nihilism has been justified in a sense by the terrible experience of evil which has marked our age' the pope asserts that 'such a dramatic experience has ensured the collapse of rationalist optimism, which viewed history as the triumphant progress of reason, the source of all happiness and freedom' (Reason and Faith). His Holiness warns against 'a certain positivist cast of mind' which 'continues to nurture the illusion that, thanks to scientific and technical progress, man and woman may live as a demiurge, single-handedly and completely taking charge of their destiny'. God forbid.

Perhaps it is unremarkable that the Catholic Church should be hostile to progress. What is remarkable is that the pope is running to catch up with the irrational fears of progress promoted by Europe's postmodernist intellectuals. Indeed, Reason and Faith even balks at the more extreme despair now fashionable among the followers of Jacques Derrida and the late Jean François Lyotard.

On the eve of the twenty-first century the public mood contrasts sharply with that at the end of the nineteenth. Certainly there was a lot of panic and doubt in 1899 - after all, this was the age that gave us the phrase 'fin de siècle fears'. But the doom mongers in those days were more than outweighed by a popular ambition for a new age. The Eiffel Tower was lambasted by reactionaries then just as the Millennium Dome is today - except that then the tower was a great popular success. While religious cults anticipated the apocalypse others celebrated the future. When Sigmund Freud published the founding work of psychoanalysis in 1899 he told the printers to put 1900 on the frontispiece, to stake his claim on the new century.

Where the eve of the twentieth century opened a debate about the shape of the future, its approaching close has led to an awkward silence. As scientific achievements are only represented by fears of computer failure, so spiritual matters are represented only by a contentless spirit zone in the Millennium Dome.

The discussion among the New Millennium Experience Company has focused on the need for rituals and monuments that are suitable for our age. The models are unpromising. The new rituals of public grief that reached their peak following the death of Princess Diana indicate a morbid public mood. Few public monuments succeed in parcelling together the fractured allegiances of our time - unless it is the new monument to the Unknown Victim in Westminster Abbey, or the barely human Amazon chosen as the 'millennial mascot', or the plinth that stands empty in Trafalgar Square because the great and the good cannot agree on a modern hero to immortalise.

The approach of the new millennium has only succeeded in bringing out the moral vacuum of our age.

Reproduced from LM issue 116, December 1998/January 1999

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