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The lives politics doesn’t touch

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Last year, owing to strikes, it took an age to reach a bar where I take my occasional refreshment. Hours passed before I understood the sense of personal affront that I felt. Here, I realised, was a case of politics affecting me in a discrete and tangible way. The impudence of it.

You see, it tends to leave me alone. Right now, across Europe, governments are deciding when and how to ban gas boilers in homes. As I rent, through choice, this is academic to me. The landlord decides the boiler. The cost will be passed on to me in a way I won’t notice. What about electric cars? I don’t drive. Inflation? I can economise without suffering. The malaise of Europe? I am mobile. I can duck out for a while. Singapore’s dining scene has come on a lot.  

Brexit? The direct victims are small exporters, touring artists, research scientists, not pampered columnists. London is more cosmopolitan, not less, than it was in 2016. Infrastructure? A precious thing if you live in a remote or ill-favoured region. But the major cities of the rich world are well set up. Education? The far future? Killer androids? The great resource wars of the 2070s? I don’t have children to fear for.

Friends, I seem to have exited History. Outside of the obvious and eternal themes of taxation and law and order, the issues of the day impinge little on me. I find it stimulating to observe politics, as a zoologist does a wombat colony, and I certainly have preferences. But something about the atomisation of the modern world has spared me personal exposure to political decisions.

Putting a name to this kind of life is a challenge. It isn’t “apathetic”. Politics is the central part of my career. Only in my thirties did I lose the Blairite/Clintonian habit of regarding people outside it and its adjacent industries as “civilians”. I hardly need to follow the news because I get it from the ambient effect of being in and around that world. (Political podcasts are for civilians.) The mode of living that I am describing isn’t apolitical, then. The best I can do is “extra-political”. It is a life outside the reach of most governmental acts. It is an imperviousness to most events.

And it is attainable. You will need the following items. An upper middle income. (You needn’t be rich, and it is an active disadvantage to have assets. Asset-owners are slaves to the interest rate cycle, and therefore to politics.) A metropolitan address in a rich and peaceful country. No children. It also helps if you are middle aged. The young, who stand to lose the prime of their lives to various crises, are politically exposed. The old are sensitive to politics in other ways: as prolific users of healthcare, or as people on fixed incomes. The extra-political sweet spot is 35 to 55.  

Meet all these criteria, and you are liable to feel an eerie insulation from “affairs”. And more and more of us do meet them. Look at the decline of the birth rate in rich countries. A growing minority of people won’t know the direct touch of politics very often, between tax returns.

A few weekends ago, I attended an unusual performance of Gustav Mahler’s first symphony. The venue was Bold Tendencies in south-east London, which rivals Miami’s 1111 Lincoln Road as the classiest multistorey car park on Earth. The view was almost worth missing the concert for. This being the hippest tract of town, the audience was younger than an establishment venue could hope to attract. Even the steel-on-steel screechings of passing trains, at first a nuisance, became an atmospheric adornment to the Philharmonia orchestra.

The one thing I tripped over was the political framing of the show. (It was part of a series on the theme of “crisis”, ecological and otherwise.) The fault is all mine, though. To most people there, with hopes of raising children or getting a mortgage, politics must have a rawness and immediacy. Whereas I, after a tumultuous decade of national and world politics, live much as I did in 2013. The extra-political life will strike some as inhuman. To me, it is a miracle of modernity. What it won’t be for much longer is exceptional.

Email Janan at janan.ganesh@ft.com

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