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BBC’s ‘Years and Years’: Economic progress causes the apocalypse

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Scanning bookshelves crammed with titles like DivergentThe Hunger Games, and countless imitators, this is the literary era of dystopian fiction. BBC One entered the genre with its “woke” TV series “Years and Years,” which offered UK viewers the unique analysis that technological progress and economic freedom triggered the apocalypse.

This synopsis includes spoilers.

“Years and Years” follows a family from the year 2019 until 2034, tracing world events along the way – and the political message could scarcely be less subtle. One family member has her life shortened when the newly re-elected President Donald Trump drops a nuclear weapon on China. Unbridled capitalism wipes out another couple’s savings.

The key villain is Viv Rook (Emma Thompson), a celebrity businesswoman turned populist politician who rises to prominence by proclaiming she does not “give a [expletive]” about the Middle Eastern conflict. She starts the Four Star Party, with a neo-fascist style insignia reminiscent of the National Alliance’s symbol. Rook holds the balance of power in a hung parliament until she can topple the government, seize power, and erect concentration camps. Innocent homosexual migrants are shipped to certain death in backward, Orthodox Christian nations in Eastern Europe for violating irrational immigration regulations. Perhaps most egregiously, she closes the beacon of truth, the taxpayer-funded BBC.

In the final episode this season (season one, episode six), matriarch Muriel Deacon tells her family they are responsible for “everything … the banks, the recession, America, Mrs. Rook, everything single thing that’s gone wrong – it’s your fault.” She explains:

We blame these vast, sweeping tides of history, you know, like they’re out of our control, like we’re so helpless and little and small. But it’s still our fault.

You know why? It’s that £1 t-shirt. A t-shirt that cost £1. We can’t resist it, every single one of us. We see a t-shirt that costs £1 and we think, “Ooh, that’s a bargain. I’ll have that,” and we buy it. … And the shopkeeper gets five miserable pence for that t-shirt, and some little peasant in a field gets paid 0.01 pence, and we think that’s fine – all of us. And we hand over our quid and we buy into that system for life.

I saw it all going wrong when it began in the supermarkets, when they replaced all the women on the till with those automated checkouts. … [Y]ou didn’t do anything, did you? Twenty years ago, when they first popped up, did you walk out? Did you write letters of complaint? Did you shop elsewhere? No! You huffed, and you puffed, and you put up with it. And now, all those women are gone. And we let it happen.

And I think we do like them, those checkouts. We want them. Because it means we can stroll through, pick up our shopping, and we don’t have to look that woman in the eye – the woman who’s paid less than us. She’s gone, got rid of her, sacked. Well done.

So, yes, it’s our fault. This is the world we built. Congratulations. Cheers, all.

A video of the scene is embedded in this tweet.

The story is less Orwellian than Julian, as in the end all is well and will be well. Ultimately, Rook’s camps are exposed, and she’s condemned by the world. The BBC opens anew. And cinema’s approved form of technological progress – transhumanism – mimics eternal life.

Thanks to its bringing received opinion to life, “Years and Years” currently enjoys an 88 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics singled out Deacon’s diatribe for plaudits, with Michael Hogan of The Telegraph calling it “one hell of a speech.”

Many scripts tell us more about how cultural elites see the majority of their country than anything about the nation or its citizens themselves. Collette Wolfe’s speech to Charlize Theron in Young Adult (language warning) set the standard here. “Years and Years” joins “The Newsroom” in this category.

But Muriel Deacon’s speech amounts to little more than demanding her benighted viewers share the writers’ Luddite aversion to technological progress. Applying the underlying principle to real history shows its shortcomings.

Blacksmiths, whose contributions to village life were once so significant they passed into verse, are no more; they have been sacked.

Wheelwrights, the gentle yeomen shaping wood strong enough to hold a covered wagon and stand the pull of four horses, have closed up shop.

“Ah,” the other side may say, “but those were skilled professions. Skilled people have the ability to learn a new expertise. But what about the unskilled laborers?”

Certain unskilled professions have winnowed down over the decades, even during my own (relatively) brief lifetime.

Just a decade ago, 71 percent more phone operators waited at the other end of the dial tone.

Not so long before ago, a full-time attendant greeted everyone who pulled into a gas station, filled your tank (with regular gasoline), washed your windshield, and offered to check your oil. Today, this persists only in New Jersey and more populated areas of Oregon – and only due to special interest legislation enacted to shield existing stations from lower-priced competition.

Windows full of bank tellers who stamped your bank book with each transaction gave way to automated teller machines.

Loggers are following Paul Bunyan into the sunset, replaced by harvesters and forwarders.

Paperhangers see their work permanently erased by computerized billboards that make their contributions redundant.

Movie theater projectionists will see their numbers shrink over the next 10 years, as on-demand streaming services allow people to watch the movie of their choice at home.

All of these jobs, while socially important, required only a rudimentary set of skills and are gradually disappearing.

The waning of these occupations has not created a long-term economic wasteland. Quite the contrary.

When employers no longer have to pay people to perform a given task, they can reinvest the savings into more productive lines of work. Machines often serve us infinitely faster, better, and more accurately than human beings. They yield greater abundance. More goods are produced, and innovation creates new professions, sometimes whole new industries. The resulting surge of creativity introduces new job opportunities for those left behind to make a longer lasting contribution.

And these technological improvements fuel research for the next breakthrough. The closing of lower skilled positions frees more human energies to participate in higher order jobs.

This not only benefits consumers and technological progress in general, but it has a greater significance. According to one of the writings of the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, it helps the human race and the individual affected participate more completely in his divine calling.

The human intellect “shares in the light of the divine mind,” it teaches. “When man develops the earth by the work of his hands or with the aid of technology, in order that it might bear fruit and become a dwelling worthy of the whole human family … he carries out the design of God manifested at the beginning of time, that he should subdue the earth, perfect creation, and develop himself.” The added efficiency generated by new technology multiplies his “service of his brethren.”

That leads to a destination far different than the one mapped out by the BBC’s writers. Economic history indicates which set of prophecies we should believe.

(Photo credit: Denis Makarenko / Shutterstock.com. Editorial use only.)

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Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Senior Editor at the Acton Institute.

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