Don’t keep calm! And don’t carry on!

Should Europeans ‘keep calm’ and conform to the status quo?

'Keep calm' slogans have been widely used in a variety of merchandise [Reuters]

For some time now, there has been a tremendous proliferation of t-shirts, mugs, signs, bags and other merchandise urging us to “keep calm”. There are countless variations on the “Keep calm and carry on” theme, initially invented by the British Ministry of Information at the outset of World War II.

These posters, never officially issued and largely forgotten until the start of the new millennium, were meant to reassure the British public, wary of possible air strikes on cities and towns. Today, everywhere we encounter ironic and trivialising spoofs on the original propaganda and morale-boosting campaign, such as “Keep calm and marry Harry”, coined on the occasion of the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton; “Keep calm and drink tea”; or, to stay on the topic of nutrition, “Keep calm and have a cupcake”, strangely reminiscent of Marie-Antoinette’s infelicitous quip.

Although the message is still very much associated with the UK (if not with Britishness as such, down to the monochrome background, the font and the royal insignia that usually accompany it), its visual presence and ubiquitous effects are now undeniably global.

If, from so many corners, we hear echoes of the 1939 call, this is because the danger is real that the public is about to lose its collective cool. One of the intense effects that surfaced as a result of the Euro crisis was, precisely, public anger at the growing misery, hopelessness and un- or under-employment for the vast majority of the increasingly impoverished European population.

In Spain, the sense of indignation was strong enough to lend a name to the popular protest movement of the “Indignados”. A corollary to this emotional state, shared by many, was the pre-revolutionary feeling that things could no longer go on the way they had been and that drastic political and economic changes, perhaps amounting to the end of capitalism, were imminent.

People & Power – The Indignant

In contrast to the boiling sentiment of public anger, “Keep calm and carry on” is the expression of ideology at its purest. The seemingly permanent economic state of emergency we are living through resonates with the political state of emergency, wherein the poster historically originated.

The austerity programmes, implemented all over southern Europe, amount to one way of “carrying on”, sanctioned by national conservative governments in concert with the infamous Troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund).

Rather than take the crisis as an opportunity for a radical restructuring of the EU, giving it a more explicitly political and a more just character, the bitter medicine the Troika administered was the destruction of the welfare state in Southern Europe and, at best, stagnation in salary growth in the rest of the continent. And, all the while, those suffering the most from such measures were urged to – you’ve guessed it – keep calm and await light at the end of the tunnel.

Popular culture is rife with appeals it draws directly from the core desire of mainstream ideology and feeds into music, cinema, and other arts. In the 1980s, a popular song “Don’t worry, be happy” was the background tune to the highly destructive neo-liberal agenda of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, both late US and UK leaders respectively. “Keep calm and carry on” is admittedly more disenchanted, more sober, and even more stoically resigned than that. There is no promise of either happiness or salvation in it – just the drudgery of endless sacrifice, carried out with perfect serenity, for the sake of the sheer continuation of existence. 

And that is precisely the point: The main achievement of the status quo is to convince those who live under its sway that their (or our) lives and futures are contingent on its extension into the future and that, without it, they (or we) will not survive, not even for a day. Fears of financial collapse and social chaos are sown in order to show how the current, admittedly imperfect, arrangement is better than the alternatives.

At the extreme, losing my cool – our ideologues imply – would result in undermining my capacity to carry on, or to go on living. Worse yet, if the public doesn’t keep calm and maintain a basic trust in the political-economic system it lives under, then its collective existence is threatened, together with this very system. What philosopher Baruch Spinoza called our “conatus essendi”, the love of life that literally ties us to our essence or our being, becomes a powerful political mechanism that, in the same gesture, binds our individual and common destinies to the fate of the powers that be.

To turn the essentially conservative message around, it is necessary, in the first place, to say no to it, to negate it with the appeal: Lose your cool, stop going about your life as usual. To a certain extent, the economic and environmental crises we are mired in have this disquieting effect on us, the effect that the ideological constructions of normalcy try to assuage.

Cutting through layers upon layers of obfuscation, spawned by these constructions, we finally realise a deeper meaning of the contemporary crises, namely that our only chance at carrying on and surviving hinges on refusing to keep calm and untying our destinies from that of the highly destructive status quo.

Michael Marder is a Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz. His most recent books include: Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (2013), Phenomena-Critique-Logos: The Project of Critical Phenomenology (2014) and The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium (2014).