WARHAMMER 40,000 IS PREDICTING THE PRESENT
Tabletop toy soldier game Warhammer 40,000 is the apogee of the ’80s. It was born in the ’80s, forged in the ’80s, is both the paradigm and ultimate parody of the ’80s. It is a fictional setting defined by punk rock and totalitarianism, bloodless tradition pitched against cataclysmic revolution, ecological eschatology, working-class disempowerment, machinist technological innovation married to a clerical (in both senses) hatred of pure reason – and of course war, omnipresent war, senseless, inescapable, eternal war. It is a future where everyone wears massive shoulderpads.
In the Grim Darkness of the Far Future there is only the ’80s, unending and unchallenged. But after thirty years frozen at the same moment in fiction, things have changed in the 41st Millennium. The doomsday clock, stuck forever on the precipice of annihilation, has finally ticked over, through armageddon and into the unknown. Living in the United Kingdom I find a strange and discomforting poetry in this. Since 2015 my country has been spasming as shock after shock tears at the social, political, and commentariat consensus that has defined our culture since Thatcher, Reagonomics, and the thaw of the Soviet regimes. The blanket of Western self-assurance that settled in the ’80s seemed so deep and heavy that American political scientist Francis Fukuyama was brave enough to call it the End of History. But here we are in 2017, two years into a seemingly endless sequence of unprecedented challenges to the status quo, vomiting up a new future from the base of our shuddering ribs. The clock is ticking.
The more I looked, the more consonance I found. Events in our reality are foreshadowed or repeated in Warhammer 40,000 with ever greater regularity, despite the fact that Games Workshop have an 18-month publishing lead time. Call it fancy on my part. Call it clinical pareidolia. Call this whole article a fever dream, and me the protagonist of a Lovecraft story contacted by entities from the Immaterium and mistaking their messages for my own thoughts. Somehow Warhammer 40,000 is predicting the present.
Let’s return to the root: the ’80s, the birth of the Western political consensus and Warhammer 40,000 – and the ascendance of Games Workshop as a business Imperium.
“The doomsday clock, stuck forever on the precipice of annihilation, has finally ticked over, through armageddon and into the unknown.”
The retailer opened its first store in London in 1975 and rapidly expanded to other premises, fuelled by a UK distribution license for TSR’s Dungeons and Dragons. Beginning as a general purpose hobby retailer, Workshop published more and more of its own products, casting miniatures through the Citadel Miniatures subsidiary and producing original and licensed board games, roleplaying games and the gaming magazine White Dwarf. In 1983 Games Workshop published the first of its core miniature wargames, Warhammer Fantasy Battle, a generic ruleset for massed infantry combat using fantasy miniatures. In 1987 its science-fiction sequel Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader would follow.
From the ’70s to the ’90s Games Workshop became ever more oriented around its own intellectual properties, gradually phasing out all other company’s products from their shelves until a Games Workshop shop had become a Games Workshop hobby centre. Games Workshop had become a vertically aligned company, managing all aspects of their business from the production of miniatures through to retail, distribution, lifestyle marketing through their White Dwarf magazine, merchandise and tie-in novelisations. It had also achieved the remarkable feat of transforming the niche miniatures wargaming hobby – previously the pursuit of history buffs – into a widespread pastime, with dedicated stores on almost every British high street and stockists around the world. It would not be until Fantasy Flight Games’ 2012 X-Wing miniatures game that another company came close to achieving their market penetration. Games Workshop created the contemporary miniature gaming market and continue to dominate it.
It is hard to pick a single moment at which Games Workshop ‘arrived’ as the cultural force it is today, and perhaps there is no single fulcrum on which the history of the company pivots, but Rogue Trader is surely a contender. Primarily written by Rick Priestley, the original game is a strange hybrid of miniature wargame and RPG, overstuffed with rules and a very different animal to the mass-battle game that exists today. But in this book the germinal ideas were planted that would grow into a multi-million dollar IP: here we met The Imperium of Man, the Dark Millennium, The Grim Darkness of the Far Future. Warhammer 40,000’s setting has been explored in millions of pages of fiction, sagas of heroism, treachery and insanity ranging across a galaxy of conflict and unreason. Something about that setting was – is – irresistible to thousands of imaginations.
“Warhammer 40,000’s setting has been explored in millions of pages of fiction, sagas of heroism, treachery and insanity ranging across a galaxy of conflict and unreason.”
The game was timely, too, capturing a zeitgeist that I (a proto-millennial born the same year Warhammer 40,000 was released) can only guess at or infer from the facts that remain: in 1987 UK unemployment was just beginning to fall below 3,000,000, the UK’s major opposition party Labour was being split by a breakaway faction known as the Social Democratic Party and would lose the year’s election, British Airways was privatised, the long burning civil conflict known as ‘The Troubles’ continued in Northern Ireland, having sex in a public place would land you a different court charge if you were straight or gay, race riots ran through the industrial city Leeds, the AIDS epidemic was killing a person a day, iconic British car firm Aston Martin was consumed by the American Ford, £50 billion was wiped off the London stock exchange by Black Monday, the economy was growing at the fastest rate since 1963, construction of the channel tunnel connecting the UK to Europe began, and Rick Astley released ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’. It was an era that was divided, unequal, unstable, profitable, innovative, caught in the teeth of tradition and modernity, filled with both suspicion and celebration of the government and fond of neon and piercings. Borrowing heavily from both the canon and contemporary New Wave science fiction magazines like Heavy Metal and 2000AD, Warhammer 40,000 was a cosmos that could answer our own.
The Britain that existed in the 1980s and the political consensus that formed around it was built around two pillars: neoliberal economic theory and the gravestone of the postwar consensus. After World War Two, faced with a demolished economy and a determination to build and claim the rewards of peace, Western nations produced a variety of forms of government we could call Social Democratic Capitalism. Employing various methods and to various degrees they used the profits of capitalism to invest in common goods, such as education, infrastructure and healthcare, improving the wellbeing of their citizens and the productivity of their economy. Empowered labour movements safeguarded these gains. By the 1970s various factors, particularly a sudden spike in the cost of Middle-Eastern oil, drove many developed economies into a sudden crisis and destroyed the legitimacy of the postwar consensus. Under Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s Conservative party won the 1979 election on the promise they would end this crisis. Their goal was to force through economic reform under a new doctrine: neoliberalism. Neoliberalism strove to deregulate businesses, freeing them from administration and bureaucracy, and reduce the role of the state in providing public services (the state, it was asserted, having an anti-competitive advantage and delivering a worse result than private enterprises). It also brought the state into conflict with organised labour as unions resisted the closure of state-owned industries and reductions in their rights (or privileges, depending on one’s perspective); ultimately, the neoliberal state would be victorious.
By 1987 this new world order was all but established: many people were living in its afterbirth, a society wracked by the forcible reconstruction it had undergone in the past two decades. Its crowning achievement – what would prompt Francis Fukuyama to declare the End of History – came in 1989, with the beginning of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a process that would continue until 1992. Here was a concrete sign that the new Western consensus was the most powerful political, economic and social force on earth. There would be no more conflict – no more discussion – the reality that had been created in the 1980s was here to stay, forever.
“Games Workshop had declared itself the dominant force in the UK games market.”
That period included a flagship year for Games Workshop, too, as in 1991 manager Tom Kirby led a management buyout of the company from owner Bryan Ansell. Kirby realigned the company around its two main IPs, removing competitors’ products from its shelves and dropping licensed games. Stores were renovated from traditional chaotic nerd-holes into bright, family facing temples to the brand. Games Workshop had declared itself the dominant force in the UK games market. This brought to a close Games Workshop’s long early period of wild inventiveness, during which it had produced Dungeons and Dragons modules, boardgames about trolls trying to find their missing legs, a short-lived heavy metal record label, and the seminal sourcebooks that continue to define the fiction of both Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 to this day: the two Realm of Chaos books Slave to Darkness and The Lost and the Damned, and Rogue Trader itself. Games Workshop had emerged in the form we would recognise today. As is often the case, what happens to the business of Games Workshop is reflected in the 41st Millenium. Though many significant details of the fiction remained to be filled in, the central premise was fixed as it had been in 1987:
“For more than a hundred centuries the Emperor has sat immobile on the Golden Throne of Earth. He is the Master of Mankind by the will of the gods and master of a million worlds by the might of his inexhaustible armies. He is a rotting carcass writhing invisibly with power from the Dark Age of Technology. He is the Carrion Lord of the Imperium to whom a thousand souls are sacrificed every day, and for whom blood is drunk and flesh eaten. Human blood and human flesh – the stuff of which the Imperium is made.
To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions. It is to live in the cruellest and most bloody regime imaginable. This is the tale of these times. It is a universe you can live today if you dare – for this is a dark and terrible era where you will find little comfort or hope. If you want to take part in the adventure then prepare yourself now. Forget the power of technology, science and common humanity. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for there is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter and the laughter of thirsting gods.
But the universe is a big place and, whatever happens, you will not be missed…”
A philosophy or ideology has become truly dominant when it has devoured its opponent. In the UK this occurred in the emergence of the New Labour movement of the early ’90s. The British Labour party had not won an election since the 1970s, and inevitable internecine strife had resulted in breakaway movements and soul-searching within the party. New Labour was a powerful political force that emerge from this turmoil. Their electoral strategy began with an internal party purge as they ousted Old Labour candidates to take their place as potential MPs and reformed party rules to consolidate power towards the parliamentary party and to minimise the influence of trade unions and the party membership base. Tony Blair was elected to leadership of the party in 1994. Powered by political nouse and backed by the Murdoch media empire, in 1997 he took the party into government. New Labour was young, energetic, savvy, and neoliberal. Though they committed to spending more on public infrastructure than the Conservatives, they continued the push torwards an agenda that deregulated business and reduced the state. Former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would later claim that Tony Blair was her greatest success. If the opposition was no longer fighting against neoliberalism, how could it ever change?
The modern version of the Warhammer 40,000 universe crystallized in the second edition of the game in 1993. Ideas and facts that had spread like briars through White Dwarf magazine and supplement books were simmered down into the gothic, baroque core we find today. The dominant facts of the setting would become established throughout the lifetime of the edition. Like all great IPs Warhammer 40,000 is as much a feeling as it is a set of fictional facts, and those facts that have stuck are the ones that feed back into that central, apocalyptic vision. They have gradually filled in, occasionally been contradicted, sometimes been casually dropped. But from 1993 onwards one thing has been fixed: the timeline cannot advance beyond the year 999M40 (40,999AD) because, as befits all good doomsday clocks, the stroke of midnight is armageddon. The ’80s never ends: the tabernacle is unbreakable and everlasting. In 1994 the company went public and the old Games Workshop was finally put to rest.
Despite many shocks and many moments that must give Fukuyama hot blushes as he reflects on his presumptuous pronouncement, neoliberalism is still the dominant economic theory in the world today. It has been so successful it has all but killed our dreams of a possible alternative: in 2009 the late Mark Fisher published the nonfiction Capitalist Realism, analyzing the abundance of dystopian fiction and paucity of visionary science fiction: we live in a time where it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of neoliberal capitalism. Warhammer 40,000 was born like a psychic starscream at the apex of the ’80s, the mindchild of intelligent, thwarted hairy Midlanders whose communities were devastated by the decade, a product of the riotous counter-cultural invention it made possible and necessary. In 1994 Tony Blair and Tom Kirby stop the clock, trap their universes in stasis fields and freeze them on the cusp before they can transform into something new. History ends in reality – history ends in Warhammer 40,000.
There have always been tremors. Any ideology that pretends it is universal and unchallengeable will warp and tear as it rubs up against the rocky face of reality. The Black Monday financial crash of 1987 was one clear sign that neoliberalism would not always succeed on its own terms; more to the point, that neoliberalism could not protect its adherents from the crises it made them blind to.
Kirby’s vertical alignment of Games Workshop was successful because the product was so damn brilliant. I cannot express the mind-blasting excitement I felt as a seven year-old boy, my nose pressed against the window of the Games Workshop on Short Wyre Street in Colchester, watching the circular glass shelves in the window display rotate to show off those incomparable little avatars, lead dragons, plastic tanks, scarab-limbed aliens. The imagery that accompanied it was equally inexplicable: maximalist, extravagant, intense.
This was the fundamental product Kirby was selling: dreams. Games Workshop had retail outlets in countries around the world, creative geniuses like sculptor Bryan Nelson and artist John Blanche bringing out new product, control over their own production facilities. In the UK they had outcompeted many independent hobby stores, while in the US they were signing leases on prominent mall locations. There were no comparable competitors. A company in the ’90s could easily assume they had arrived at the perfect business model.
Like most retailers that flourished in the ’90s, internet retail kicked Games Workshop in the teeth, hard. Games Workshop was slow to develop its own websales portal, and by the time it had a solution independent e-retailers – who undercut Workshop – had already established themselves. This began an on-and-off terms-of-service war with distributors as Games Workshop attempted to reclaim lost ground on the e-commerce market. They were powerless to stop the resale of second-hand miniatures through eBay, and when small independent miniature makers suddenly saw the market for their niche products expand, a new wave of competitor games emerged. Specialist manufacturers making after-market parts to modify Workshop’s miniatures proliferated, and Workshop would discover that their archetypal designs did not give them trade mark protection against these companies. American mall culture collapsed as customers turned online, turning Games Workshop’s well positioned storefronts into costly white elephants. On it went.
Yet Workshop’s profits were shielded from this harsh reality by the acquisition of a license to produce wargames based on the Lord of the Rings movies. The films were a global phenomenon and the license was an excellent fit for Workshop, allowing them to produce a distinctive line of miniatures which could appeal to a new audience who might not be reached by Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000. It was a bubble that popped in 2005 as the mania for the movie series at last dropped off. But during that period, hidden from its own vulnerability to market conditions, Workshop developed a reputation for being aloof from its customers. Kirby had taken the company to greatness by slaughtering the sacred cows of the old management, eliminating everything outside his single vision – and the company profited, right up until it didn’t.
“Kirby had taken the company to greatness by slaughtering the sacred cows of the old management, eliminating everything outside his single vision – and the company profited, right up until it didn’t.”
Throughout the Conservative government of the ’80s and then the Labour government of the ’90s and ’00s, Britain had – still has – unresolved structural economic problems. Our housing supply is low, raising the cost of living which in turn reduces consumer demand, and increases personal debts. Our economy is imbalanced in favour of the South East, with many regions lacking private enterprise investment. Some former public services (such as railways and energy) that have since been privatized are now unaffordably expensive for poorer citizens, or lack coverage in commercially unprofitable areas. Infrastructural investment (in roads, railways and telecoms) has been hampered by a lack of public funds and protective land laws, reducing the productivity of British business. The New Labour government did not, for the most part, solve these problems, but attempted to bypass them. They focused on promoting the enormous London banking sector, continuing the neoliberal deregulation of finance markets begun under the Conservatives, and using tax revenues from this to provide in-work benefits for low-paid workers, council-tax benefits for people unable to afford their housing, and moving state businesses (particularly administration) into areas without private investment. The long term vulnerability of this economy was papered over by a temporary windfall.
This folly was revealed during the global financial collapse of 2008 when – to abbreviate a very long and intricate story – after decades with no-one outside the sector paying attention, banks suddenly discovered that investments on which they had risked vast sums of other people’s money were utterly worthless. Billions upon billions of pounds of state money were poured into suddenly-indebted banks to save them from bankruptcy (and the knock on collapse of the entire economy.) By 2010 Labour was out of government and the Conservatives (in coalition with the Liberal Democrats) were in.
New Labour had thoroughly overtaken the Labour party’s internal apparatus, and done everything it could to exclude Old Labour and the general labour membership from influencing the direction of the party. The justifications were many – Old Labour had lost for the duration of the ’80s and only the New Labour of the ’90s had saved the party from oblivion, New Labour’s policy of triangulating their policies based on what think-tanks said the public wanted was preferable to taking ideas from the membership, Old Labour’s old-fashioned Socialist ideas were so hugely unpopular they would be political suicide, and so on. Yet even with a rigour-mortis hold on the party’s apparatus, New Labour found themselves with nothing to say and no effective voice for their opposition. They favoured neoliberal economics, and it was global, neoliberal deregulation of the banking sector that precipitated the financial crash. The Conservatives of course had supported the same policies even while in opposition, but had the advantage that they were not holding the hand grenade when it exploded. Thus it was that Labour watched impotently from the sidelines while the Coalition government enacted the next stage of neoliberal governance: austerity.
“UK workers have seen the longest continuous real-terms reduction in living standards since the Napoleonic wars.”
Austerity economics is simply the rapid reduction of state spending – on direct benefits or public services – accompanied by tax breaks for businesses to prevent bankruptcies and encourage investment. The logic is that, if the state is heavily indebted, it must reduce its outgoings to pay down the debt and thus reduce its interest payment burden. It is also a convenient excuse to accelerate the long-term goal of neoliberalism – the minimisation of the state in favour of the private sector – and it has side-effects: reducing state spending also squeezes consumer confidence as public sector and low-wage workers have less money to spend; while reducing taxation on private businesses does not necessarily encourage them to invest more in the country if their customer base have low wages, little disposable income and high personal debt. The results to date have not been impressive: UK workers have seen the longest continuous real-terms reduction in living standards since the Napoleonic wars, the UK has the worst and slowest-growing economy of any developed nation, the national debt is higher than it was in 2010, and public services face recruitment crises as low wages and bad conditions deter both new and experienced staff – though the deficit (between annual tax income and annual state expenditure) has at least been reduced.
Games Workshop went through a similar cost-cutting spree. Suddenly faced with the reality of unprofitable stores and an unfit-for-purpose web presence, Workshop severed leases and began reducing staffing until many stores ran on a single employee. Workshop focused more than ever on satisfying its shareholders, and while this is not strictly a bad idea – sensible shareholders who understand long-term growth and stable returns should provide a CEO with solid recommendations for the structure of their business – it came at the expense of the company’s relationship with its long-term customers. Just as Labour became further isolated from new ideas, Tom Kirby became a figurehead for an insular, inwards looking Games Workshop. Their official web forum closed in 2006, shutting off the company from the ruckus of a critical fanbase. They withdrew support for their fan-facing Games Day conventions outside the UK, stopped organised play events in 2010 and changed to an almost hostile footing with independent retailers. This came during a period of escalating prices for the core product and continued dissatisfaction with the quality of the game, while the market continued to diversify around Games Workshop. A quote from the 2013-2014 annual report shows an attitude fans were already well acquainted with: “We do no demographic research, we have no focus groups, we do not ask the market what it wants. These things are otiose in a niche.” Workshop’s revenues increased and yet profitability remained volatile and typically low. They were giving an answer, but it was the wrong one.
This was exactly the state of the UK Labour party. It was drawing conclusions about how to handle the economic crisis facing the UK (and political crisis facing the party) from a handbook more than two decades old, in perfect isolation from its supporter base. Even the left-wing commentariat provided by the Guardian and (now defunct) Independent newspapers could not suggest an economic or electoral strategy other than to mimic the Conservative austerity policy, but do it more gently. This strategic inertia and isolation would be met with a grand rebuttal at the 2015 general election, when Labour, presenting a neoliberal manifesto that would continue austerity (albeit in a less extreme form), lost badly. They shed seats to both the Conservatives and – more tellingly – to the Scottish Nationalist Party, who won by characterising Scottish Labour as Conservatives in Socialist clothing.
Games Workshop’s crisis of legitimacy also came in 2015 with the disastrous launch of Warhammer: Age of Sigmar. In many ways Age of Sigmar was a smart answer to a thorny problem. The venerable Warhammer Fantasy Battle game had become increasingly unprofitable. The model range was expansive and included some lines that were close to generic competitors (such as the medieval-French Bretonnians), the rules were exceedingly complex which made teaching new players very difficult, but most tellingly the cost in time and money for a potential player to create an army and enter the game was hundreds of pounds and dozens of hours. The setting, The Old World, was nowhere near as successful as its science-fiction cousin, and relatively limited – it was a Tolkienesque reimagining of earth populated with fantasy races and almost no blank space left on the map. Age of Sigmar was a relaunch of the game with a new setting, new rules, and a streamlined model range.
It was a disaster. Workshop’s marketing policy was obtuse, refusing to communicate with the many independent hobby blogs that covered their products, not even permitting their own stores and stockists to disclose the nature of a product before it launched. In the months prior a series of supplement rulebooks and tie-in fiction brought about the end of the Old World, and players were excited for a new and improved version of their nuanced mass-combat game. What they got was entirely different and immeasurably simpler, to the extent that the new 264 page core book contained only 4 pages of rules. This surprise alone would be a challenge for some gamers. But Workshop had misread their market so spectacularly, so entirely, that even as they launched their flagship title they were drilling holes through the keel. The new game launched without a points system.
Allow me a digression in this already vast essay. Points are a balancing system used in almost all wargames. Each model or unit costs a certain number of points, and players have a fixed budget they can spend composing their army. Points stand as a proxy for the utility of a unit, and so two players with armies of the same points value should expect their armies to be evenly matched. In tournaments this ensures games are a fair test of skill. In pick-up games it supports the social contract between strangers. Players will tend to say that a points system exists to balance the game, but its other function is to provide clarity: to make it clear to the participants whether the collection of miniatures they have brought to the table will provide one or two or four hours of play, and whether their armies will produce a thrilling game with everything to play for, or a tedious and one-sided slaughter. To launch a miniature wargame without a points system is an act of hubris so baffling Oedipus himself would hand you his broach pin. I do not know who was responsible for this crippling design decision, but I would very much like to know what they were drinking. Suffice to say it was not popular and the game sold poorly.
Tom Kirby stepped back from his post as CEO Games Workshop at the start of 2015, taking up the post of chairman of the board of directors. He remains the company’s largest shareholder – whether he is the power behind the throne or a relatively silent partner I cannot guess. But Age of Sigmar can be seen as a final hurrah for a period of insular, technocratic governance of the company, of which Kirby was the figurehead. It was a rapid, spiralling plane fire of a launch that came only two months after New Labour’s similarly disastrous, committee-designed electoral offering. Though New Labour would not accept it (and Tom Kirby might dispute it), new ideas and new leadership were desperately required.
“Age of Sigmar was a rapid, spiralling plane fire of a launch that came only two months after New Labour’s similarly disastrous, committee-designed electoral offering.”
One major change had come through under the final years of Kirby’s management. Although it was impossible to tell where they would eventually lead, new events were occurring at the end of the 41st Millennium. Previous attempts to update the plot – particularly the massive Eye of Terror global participation campaign, in which players from across the world submitted game results to affect the outcome of a calamitous war – had been retconned from existence. There was a trepidation in Games Workshop about any change that risked dissipating the lightning they had bottled in the ’80s. But supplement books were introducing new, more catastrophic battlegrounds across the Imperium of Man, and after Kirby’s departure these increased in frequency and importance. The best-selling Horus Heresy tie-in novels had already expanded on the mythic lore of the Imperium’s early history, and new books used this reservoir of references to ratchet the stakes yet higher. As 2015 rolled into 2016, ancient adversaries would re-emerge from the darkest places of the galaxy and challenge mankind as never before. After nearly thirty years without alteration, things were beginning to happen in the galaxy of the far future – very bad things indeed.
2016 is the year of Brexit. That story is still being written, but this much is known. A political crisis within the Conservative party – between the two tendencies to either remain or leave the European union – was allowed to play out as a national drama. The Prime Minister attempted to bring the Leave heel to bear by offering the nation a referendum to decide whether Britain should remain or depart from the EU. Against all expectation, the Leave vote won. For the political and commentariat mainstream, left utterly bewildered by the referendum result, it was a total condemnation of their incompetence. For the British economy it may yet be the harbinger of total ruin. For the Conservative party it was a Kafka-esque farce, as those who had championed the Leave campaign had no intention of winning it, only of positioning themselves as people’s champions for a later leadership bid and gather support of true Leave supporters within the party ranks; after their “victory” they all sheepishly stepped away from a now-vacant leadership post, leaving the governance of the party and execution of Brexit to people who had campaigned against it. For the British progressive left it arrived like a gutpunch. It was the loudest the electorate had spoken in several decades, and whatever they had intended to say, one message was clear: they did not like business as usual, and to hell with the consequences. The ground was shifting beneath the status quo – what would be destroyed in the coming earthquake?
“It was the loudest the electorate had spoken in several decades, and whatever they had intended to say, one message was clear: they did not like business as usual, and to hell with the consequences.”
In January of 2017, Game Workshop released the first book of the Gathering Storm trilogy, Fall of Cadia. This was a retread of the events previously fought out by fans in the 2003 Eye of Terror Campaign, but instead of ending in a stalemate (and ultimately being wiped from fictional history) this time it ended in a dark and terrible victory. Warhammer 40,000 borrows (steals) heartily from Christian mythology and especially from Milton, so without getting bogged down in the made up names of the setting, in Fall of Cadia Satan kills the angels guarding the gates of hell and then melts them to the ground. It was the surest sign that a truly epic war would burn through the Imperium of Man – a certain sign that a new edition of the game was imminent – and that just perhaps, as with Warhammer’s transition to Age of Sigmar, the world of Warhammer 40,000 was about to end.
Now I must talk about renewal. It is unfair – though not necessarily untrue – to attribute all of the following to Tom Kirby relinquishing his role as CEO the Games Workshop. But it was after he left this masthead post that the company began, bit by bit, to turn the tiller on their vast ship. To pick a starting point, the late 2015 release of the Betrayal at Calth boardgame brought with it plastic miniatures to represent the Horus Heresy era (the year 30,000 in the fictional timeline), a long-demanded fan request. June 2016 saw the release of the General’s Handbook for Age of Sigmar, bringing points into the game for the first time – it was rewarded with a rapid spike in sales. A new Warhammer 40,000 army, Genestealer Cults, revisited a beloved model range not touched since the ’80s. 2016 also saw Games Workshop return to supporting tournament events, launch a community website with hobby tips, tournament reports and sneak peaks (the first time they had produced such content online in over a decade), and return to social media. They revised their terms to third-party stockists making them more favourable and less protectionist of their own web store. They published FAQs, finally answering rules questions after years of a fire-and-forget policy for their publications. New ‘Start Collecting’ boxes broke one of Tom Kirby’s cast-iron (and deeply unpopular) rules, “a premium product at a premium price,” offering bundled miniatures at a discount, and new boardgames and starter sets that repackaged existing miniatures at a discount continued this trend. The new strategy was to give the customer what they wanted – and after several tremulous years, profits and share prices began to rise.
In March 2017 Games Workshop released Rise of the Primarch, third book in the Gathering Storm trilogy (the second book, Fracture of Biel Tan, is interesting and relevant but Emperor help me this article is 5,000 words already and we don’t have the time.) If Fall of Cadia saw Satan kick down the doors of hell, in Rise of the Primarch we see the resurrection of Christ. Christ in the Warhammer 40,000 universe is Roboute Guilliman, a genetically-engineered superman who has been locked in stasis on the point of death for 10,000 years, a lost scion from the Imperium’s brief and forever irretrievable golden age when the Emperor forged a secular paradise of scientific progress and humanist emancipation. As the Imperium of Man faces an existential crisis that threatens to shatter the fabric of reality, a living demigod walks the stars once more, a messiah too good for the fallen world.
British leftists must now know the punchline I have been building towards throughout this article. After the disaster of the 2015 election I joined the Labour party, realising that the one small lever I would have over my country’s future would be casting a vote for the next leader of the opposition – the next figurehead around whom policies would accrete, whose political bloc would form the kernel of a new opposition. I had few hopes and a single goal: to elect someone, anyone, who could put a stop to business-as-usual. Conservative Neoliberalism would be the ruin of my nation, and neoliberalism-light would be the graveyard of the Labour party.
Jeremy Corbyn stepped straight out of the 1970s and onto the leadership ballot. His policies were simple and old-fashioned: democratic capitalist socialism, an end to austerity, investment in public services and national infrastructure and taxation on the wealthy. It would take New Labour and the mainstream commentariat 18 months to realise what his supporters – and there were soon many of us – could immediately see: that if not the man himself, at least his politics were incredibly, radically popular. Around 100,000 new members joined the Labour Party in the months between his candidacy and the leadership election. From there it would rise above the 400,000 mark, a figure not seen since Blair’s 1997 election win.
The political mainstream reviled Corbyn – as did the New Labour wing of the party. He, and by extension the policy bloc he represented, faced a second party leadership challenge, accompanied by continuous negative and inaccurate coverage in the press (the London School of Economics found that 75% of newspaper coverage of the Labour leader either distorted or failed to represent his views accurately). I would be remiss not to mention the dismal results of the Brexit referendum, where Corbyn could not convince strongholds of Labour voters throughout the north-east of England to vote to remain in the EU. There was always the claim that his policies might appeal to a hardcore of old-fashioned socialists, admittedly a large hard core, but that this was a bizarre outlier far removed from the national mood. By the time a snap election was called in April of 2017, Labour trailed in the polls by 24 points, a sign of almost certain defeat. Corbyn remained popular with his supporter base – indeed I find the messianic light in which he is sometimes cast deeply troubling – but could he, and the social democratic manifesto he put forwards, possibly represent electoral future?
“It would take New Labour and the mainstream commentariat 18 months to realise what his supporters – and there were soon many of us – could immediately see: that if not the man himself, at least his politics were incredibly, radically popular.”
The fate of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, Games Workshop PLC and the British national destiny have become chaotically encoiled. On 5th of March 2017 Games Workshop releases Rise of the Primarch and in 999M40 Roboute Guilliman stirs from a hundred centuries of torpor to witness the final act of the millennium. Prime Minister Theresa May calls a snap election on the 18th of April 2017 and Games Workshop follows this on the 29th of April by announcing a new 8th edition of their flagship game line. Time has run out on the dark millennium, filled to its final moments with revolution and revelation. The final barrier – the stroke of midnight – cannot be deferred. Games Workshop must abandon the holy works written in the ’80s and deified in the ’90s. The Imperium must stand or fall. Corbyn’s Labour movement must enter the crucible of election and claim their right to exist from the neoliberal consensus, breathe fire into the dream of a new future, or else melt into oblivion. The election results are called on the 8th of June – the new edition of Warhammer 40,000 launches on the 17th.
The future rushes in. 8th edition is a sell-out success with exciting models, an overhaul of rules largely unchanged since 1998, and an exciting new plot, an elegant harmonisation of the contemporary and the classic of the kind that has propelled the Marvel Cinematic Universe to box office dominance. The galaxy of the 42nd Millenium is divided in two by a metaphysical rift; on one side a resurgent Imperium lead by Guilliman wages a galactic crusade of liberation; on the far side, human worlds are trapped in unreachable darkness. The election returns the strangest victory for Labour: enough seats to humiliate and destabilise the Conservative party, robbing them of their majority, and yet not enough to claim the UK Parliament for themselves. They have unmistakably arrived, and everyone who doubted them, from New Labour MPs to newspaper editorials to their opponents at the ballot, look like egg-soaked imbeciles – and yet they haven’t won. Everything is in flux. The neoliberal consensus, like the postwar consensus before it, is losing the mindless bestial inertia that kept it kicking long after it should have rightly died.
I cannot unsee these patterns. A sane conclusion would be that, like Otis Eugene Ray and his schizophrenic Time Cube, I am fabricating causality when all I can read is the random heat of my dying brain. But the patterns will not go away. We stand on the precipice of millennium. We’re standing in a nonstop disco playing ‘Ghost Town’ by the Specials and ‘Her Name is Rio’ by Duran Duran, trapped in a decade that never ended, with the unholy light of the future shining in through the fire escape doors, irradiating Jeremy Corbyn like a nuclear messiah, the ghost of Margaret Thatcher transfixed as if in the beam of Peter Venkman’s proton pack. Eight-foot-tall power-armored Space Marines are kicking down the walls and outside in the howling warp gale Tzeentch, the Great Deceiver and Changer of the Ways, is laughing, laughing, laughing, a mad God drunk on sheer raw panic and Rabelaisian confusion. Somehow, some fucking how, narrative supplements published by a toy-soldier manufacturer from Nottingham are a better predictor of Britain’s future than electoral polling data, newspaper editorials, the commentariat, our entire, professional political class. They’re more accurate than the fucking bookies.
Chaos Reigns. Hail the Primarch Corbyn.
Update 12th July 2017: This article originally claimed that Tom Kirby left Games Workshop in 2015, but has been amended to reflect the fact that he simply stepped down as CEO and remains chairman of the board of directors and a significant shareholder.