Viral déjà vu

I guess that one of the advantages of an infrequent posting schedule is that it gives one the opportunity to consider events a little more carefully before venturing an opinion, reducing the risk of later looking back on a hot take that proved laughably inaccurate. The downside is that one is always tempted to wait for the conclusive data point that will confirm or refute an analysis, until one finds that the moment has passed, and no one is interested anymore. The challenge is to find the sweet spot between being an activist, engaged in events as they develop, and a historian, drawing lessons from matters that are settled.

Back in May, in the wake of the local elections, I was thinking that Boris Johnson might have hit upon just the right blend of social conservatism and and economic liberalism to convince a large enough section of the electorate to overlook the venality and incompetence of his administration to keep him in power. Of course this arrangement would be inherently unstable; a Conservative administration would be unable and/or unwilling to deliver the material benefits promised to working-class voters in the north, necessitating ever more reactionary rhetoric aimed at foreigners, immigrants, and whoever else Johnson chose to blame for his government’s failures. Still, I thought he might be able to keep the show on the road for a year or two at least, given Labour’s inability to provide any coherent opposition.

However recent by-election results suggest that Johnson’s scheme may be unraveling at a slightly faster rate. The supposedly safe seat of Chesham was lost to the Liberals, as affluent Tory voters balked at the prospect of subsiding spending in poorer constituencies, while Labour were able to hang on to Batley, amid signs that the electorate was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the Johnson administration’s relentless grifting.

That said, Johnson is still in a strong position, though these events seem to have shaken him, and prompted a characteristically populist response; his determination to go ahead with the relaxation of practically all pandemic-related restrictions, despite warnings that, as was the case last year, this is somewhat premature.

So perhaps it’s not necessary to wait to see how history plays out in the fullness of time; rather, one can confidently predict that what unfolds will be a depressingly familiar rehash of old mistakes.

Got myself injected

Having managed to dodge the coronavirus for the best part of a year, despite working in some relatively high-risk areas, last week I stood in line and received my first dose of vaccine. If the outcome data is as good as has been reported (and there’s no reason to believe that it isn’t) it’s looking like I have a reasonably good chance of coming out of this pandemic essentially unscathed, physically at least.

The jab I got was the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 mRNA Vaccine BNT162b2, described in the product literature as “highly purified single-stranded, 5’-capped messenger RNA (mRNA) produced by cell-free in vitro transcription from the corresponding DNA templates, encoding the viral spike (S) protein of SARS-CoV-2”. The fact that our species is capable of even imagining such a thing, let alone developing and manufacturing it on an industrial scale in little over twelve months since the virus emerged, does give one some hope for the future of humanity.

Of course the mere existence of this vaccine, and the others that have become available over the last couple of months, would count for little without a reliable distribution system, but, happily, our local inoculation programme seems to be rolling out reasonably efficiently. Less happily, production problems have reportedly resulted in a shortage of supply in the rest of the EU, indirectly straining the Brexit trade deal barely a month after it was signed. I guess the last year should have taught me that, for every piece of encouraging news there is bound to be an equally dispiriting counterpoint.

New year, old problems

So, here we are in 2021, and it doesn’t seem that different from 2020; Donald Trump has kept on being cartoonishly villainous, and Boris Johnson is still cartoonishly incompetent.

At least our American cousins can look forward to some relief at the end of the month, since, apart from some grandstanding for the benefit of QAnon diehards, the GOP seems to have resigned itself to the reality of a Biden administration. They are probably fairly confident of picking up at least one of the two Senate seats on offer in the Georgia runoff election tomorrow, which would give them the majority needed to block any part of the Democrats’ programme they consider too progressive. It’s not hard to imagine the existence of a significant block of Republican voters who didn’t want to back Trump, but who will turn out to make sure Joe doesn’t have everything his own way, but it’s also possible that Biden supporters will be energised by winning in November, and will show up in sufficient numbers to carry the day. The early polling figures give some support to the latter scenario, so I’ll stick my neck out with our first prediction of the year; Democrats to sweep both contests.

Over here, alas, there is no immediate prospect of a change of government, so we seem fated to continue enduring the combined effects of Covid and Brexit for the foreseeable future, unameliorated by the ineffectual efforts of what passes for our national leadership. At least the frontline health services do seem a bit more on top of things, so I guess we’ll survive, but we’re going to have to draw deep on our famed reserves of British resilience to see this through.

Lost Christmas

Just when it seemed like humanity was finally getting on top of the whole Covid thing, and we could to go back to worrying full-time about Brexit, the virus has apparently mutated into a new super-infectious strain, precipitating a fresh surge in cases, and prompting Boris Johnson to reintroduce a lockdown, effectively cancelling Christmas for much of the population.

This isn’t actually going to have much practical effect for me, since I had no plans to do anything over the festive season other than sit in the house watching TV in a state of semi-intoxication, but it’s hard not to get caught up in the sense of gloom that has swept the nation since the news broke. Restrictions that were just about bearable during the summer seem especially grim in the darkness of midwinter. We have little to look forward to, and a lot to be apprehensive about, not least the aforementioned Brexit, which promises to plunge the country into a fresh crisis in less than a fortnight. The government’s shambolic handling of the pandemic, with the U-turn over Yuletide only the latest blunder, does little to inspire confidence.

One can just about cut Johnson a little slack on his response to Covid; it is after all the sort of once-in-a-century challenge that might have tested any leader, though it’s not hard to see how his administration could have done better. The Brexit debacle is unforgivable however; an entirely self-inflicted wound that even a semi-competent premier should have avoided. Both issues highlight Johnson’s essential weakness; having attained his position by deploying populist rhetoric, he now finds himself unable to make decisions that might prove unpopular, particularly anything that reminds his supporters that a course of action he commended to them will inevitably involve unpleasant consequences.

The irony is that, had he shown more decisiveness, Johnson could have exploited these extraordinary circumstances to entrench the Tories in power for a generation, in the way that his predecessor Margaret Thatcher used the economic turmoil of the 1980s to unravel the post-war social compact, and tip the class struggle decisively in favour of capital. As it stands though, barely a year after his triumphal entry into Downing Street, Johnson’s authority has all but completely ebbed away, and his downfall in the next 12 months is not unimaginable.

Johnson’s departure might be a welcome outcome, but it’s not clear whether, given the opportunity to choose a new course, the country will go for the Biden option of comforting centrism, or double down on the nationalist extremism. Sadly, there isn’t much indication that the population is ready to take a turn towards progressive radicalism, though perhaps collective solutions will become more popular as people observe the inability of the free market to respond to the Covid emergency.

Any sort of happy ending may seem a long way off, but it’s the winter solstice tomorrow, and after that the days will be getting longer, reminding us that, however cold and dark it is now, spring and summer will always come around.

[We haven’t had a musical link for ages, so here’s a suitably seasonal one, if you’ll excuse the pun.]

Corona karma

The UK may not lead the world in much these days, but we were one of the first countries to have our head of government go down with Covid-19. Now that our transatlantic cousins have belatedly caught up, what effect will that have on the forthcoming election?

Obviously one does not wish ill-health upon a 74 year old man, even Donald Trump, but it is tempting to imagine some cosmic justice at play here, given Trump’s woeful response to the pandemic emergency, and the suffering that has resulted for ordinary US citizens.

However Trump is a man who seems always to fall on his feet; if (admittedly a big if) this does not kill him, it may, as the saying goes, make him stronger.

Trump will either shrug the infection off, or he will get very sick. The former scenario will both further his reputation among his followers as some kind of übermensch, and confirm his contention that the whole coronavirus thing is no big deal, while in the latter circumstances he will benefit from a surge of sympathy, and his QAnon disciples will be galvanised by the conviction that his illness is a cover for a deep-state plot to kill him.

Of course there is a third possibility – Trump may be humbled by a brush with mortality, and emerge from the ordeal a better man. That seems a bit of a long shot though…

Hierarchy of fear

So, what should I be feeling more anxious about; the increasingly febrile atmosphere surrounding the US elections, or the stalemate in the Brexit negotiations?

On the face of it, the outlook in the US does appear more alarming. Donald Trump is upping the ante of threatened chaos as election day approaches, and he remains stubbornly behind in the polls. It initially looked like he would limit himself to suggesting that his supporters should dispute the outcome if he lost, but now he is leaning towards encouraging them to take up arms to protect the vote from alleged fraud, thus giving a green light to bands of trigger-happy vigilantes to descend upon the polling stations and deny access to anyone who they think looks suspicious (ie non-white). This would be incendiary at the best of times, but with the country in the grip of a deadly epidemic, economic insecurity on the rise, anger over racial injustice still at boiling point, and the western states literally in flames, it’s not unimaginable that the situation could deteriorate to the extent that the right’s wilder fantasies of nullifying opposition by imposing martial law may be realised.

Compared with such an apocalyptic scenario, the latest difficulties in the never-ending Brexit saga must seem, to our US readers, charmingly inconsequential. It’s true that the sight of Her Majesty’s Prime Minister declaring his intention to breach international law by going back on a treaty that he himself agreed less than a year ago, on the grounds that he didn’t really understand what he was signing up to, is something that must, in outside observers, inspire pity rather than fear, but, for those of us actually living here, the implications are rather more sobering. It is clear that Boris Johnson and those around him have absolutely no grasp of the seriousness of the situation, let alone any strategy for navigating the turmoil that will result if, as seems inevitable, they fail to negotiate an EU trade deal before the middle of next month. Similarly, it is difficult to have any confidence in their ability to handle the looming resurgence of coronavirus cases, given that their plans rely on the widespread application of as-yet uninvented technology. The combined effect of all this threatens a social crisis which could be every bit as traumatic as that in the US, though, since the UK is, thankfully, not awash with firearms, it will hopefully be less bloody.

What really concerns me about our domestic situation though is the lack of coherent opposition to the government. One has the sense that, in the US, there is a sizeable and growing constituency, both within and outside the political establishment, that is aware of what Trump is up to, and is working to stop him. Over here, while there is no shortage of dismay at Johnson’s antics, it is far from clear what anyone plans to do about it.

I guess I should count myself amongst the guilty on that count; the demoralisation I felt after the election has never lifted, and I’ve made no real effort to contribute to any sort of resistance recently. I know that I would feel calmer if I was engaged in some kind of collective effort, and even in the current circumstances there are plenty of things going on locally that I could help out with, to feel that I was making even a little difference. Perhaps if I focus on the small things for now, with time my appetite to tackle the big issues will return.

Summer of discontent

In recent times, as the reality of mortality has impinged ever more forcefully upon my consciousness, I have fallen into a routine of working through the winter and taking extended summer breaks, in an attempt to maximise my remaining time in the sun. This year I had scheduled another long, secluded retreat, but events disrupted my plans somewhat, as I heeded the call to help combat the national emergency.

Obviously, being obliged to work in a well-paid job for a few months instead of taking a holiday doesn’t exactly make me the biggest victim of the coronavirus pandemic, and, truth be told, I could probably have weaselled out of it, since what I ended up doing was mostly routine. I did cover for people who were off doing more important things I guess, which was just about enough to convince me that I had fulfilled my civic duty, and to confirm my rather narcissistic belief that I am a vital cog in the health service machine.

Whatever, the government has decided, almost certainly prematurely, that we are over the worst of this, and that everyone should get back to work already, so I’m set to slot back into my usual winter post at the end of next month.

I do have some belated time off before then, and I had considered going away somewhere, but the options are limited, the weather is getting colder, and, in any case, I’m not sure that I’m in the right frame of mind for relaxation. There’s a low-level haze of unfocused anxiety floating around on the edge of my awareness, which might just be due to me not having had a break for a while, though I think it’s more likely to be my brain’s fairly reasonable response to the objectively terrible situation we find ourselves in.

What’s most unsettling of course is much of it is beyond my control. The thing over which I have most influence – my personal risk of contracting coronavirus – is the thing I’m least worried about. I should be able to do something to ameliorate the effect of the epidemic on my immediate community, since I’m not completely out of touch with the local activist scene, and perhaps my professional skills, such as they are, will come in useful if and when the second wave of infection hits. But when it comes to the big bugbears lurking in the background – Brexit and the US elections – my only recourse is writing about them in this blog, which seems unlikely to make a significant difference.

Still, even useless activity feels better than doing nothing, so look out for some posts excoriating Johnson and Trump, as I attempt to exorcise my feelings of impotence by superstitiously scribbling.

Alternatively, I could make like a Polish pachyderm, and up my weed intake. It would probably take elephant-sized doses to calm me down though…

Atlas mooched

In another generally gloomy week, what with the coronavirus pandemic threatening a resurgence, and the economy on the edge of collapse, there was a bit of light relief for leftists, when we learned that the Ayn Rand Institute had accepted a payout of between $350,000 and $1 million, courtesy of the US government’s Paycheck Protection Program.

No doubt the uncompromising Objectivists will rationalise this as reclaiming funds that had been unfairly alienated by a tyrannical state (the same logic Rand herself used to justify accepting Social Security benefits after she retired), but for more communist-leaning observers like myself it’s just more proof that capitalism is the most efficient welfare system ever devised by mankind, unparalleled in its ability to redistribute wealth from the workers who actually produce it into the pockets of the parasitical bourgeoisie.

Solstice unease

So here we are at midsummer, half way through a year that started unpromisingly, and has steadily got worse. The most pressing problem is obviously the deadly global pandemic, with its accompanying economic meltdown, but all the things I was worried about back in January – principally our new right-wing government and its plans for a hard Brexit, and, across the Atlantic, Donald Trump’s dictatorial ambitions – are still around, only amplified by the new conditions.

Trump may have backed down from his threat to put troops on the streets, when it became clear that there was no stomach at the Pentagon for such blatantly unconstitutional action, but it looks unlikely that he will let the vote in November go ahead without doing his best to suppress Democrat turnout, while priming his own base to forcibly contest the outcome if necessary. Since he is trailing badly in the polls, the only results that look likely are that he loses the election, or he steals the election; either way serious turmoil seems guaranteed.

Meanwhile, in the UK, Boris Johnson seems determined to press on with a rapid Brexit, despite practically no progress having been made in securing a trade deal with the EU, and the economy being in no shape to take any more dislocation. There is little sign that Johnson has any sort of plan to manage the situation, beyond recklessly abandoning the lockdown restrictions, so we’re odds-on to be facing a combined political and economic crisis by the end of the year, with a public-health disaster thrown in for good measure.

There are some reasons for optimism; it’s becoming increasingly obvious that our current woes are crying out for a collective response, which has the potential to popularise progressive positions. The unprecedentedly diverse backlash against police violence is one sign of this; with some work the left could widen this out into a broader anti-establishment narrative that might produce some real change. Of course the extreme right are also working on their own alternative narratives, and, the way the world is now, it’s hard to be confident that they won’t come out on top, at least temporarily. By midwinter we may be in a very cold place indeed.

Premature relaxation

The events to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day last weekend may have been scaled back a bit, but they still provided an opportunity for the country to remember past glories, and reflect on the quietly heroic nature of the national character, which, we like to think, ensures we can overcome any challenge.

Our current leaders seem to have less confidence in the resolve of the population however; while our forebears endured six years of war and hardship in the fight to destroy the Nazi menace, Boris Johnson evidently doubts that we can put up with much more than six weeks of lockdown, and is proceeding to loosen the restrictions with reckless haste. Underlying his rush to return to pre-crisis “normality” is of course a concern that the financial consequences of the current regulations will undermine his government’s reputation for economic competence.

I don’t want to understate the calamitous effects that the economic freeze has had on the more marginal sections of the community, deprived of work and largely excluded from the government’s patchy relief efforts, but it is these same people who stand to suffer most if the epidemic, which is just about contained at the moment, is allowed to run free, as they are forced back to their low-paid jobs with no regard to the risks that might entail.

The UK has, to some extent, rediscovered its collective identity over the last few weeks. A competent administration would build on that, by increasing support for the most vulnerable, while exhorting the rest of us to stick together in the face of a common enemy. Alas, as the country has lurched from crisis to crisis in recent years it has become clearer that our political class, epitomised by the Prime Minister, lacks the capacity to deal with any situation that requires actual leadership.

So it looks like our best hope of avoiding a second wave of infection might indeed lie in the fabled national solidarity, as ordinary people follow the advice that will keep their fellow citizens safe, instead of listening to those politicians who care more about the lost profits of big business.

Perhaps, when all this is over, and we are able to assess the legacy of this troubled time, we will see that, like the war, it gave us a chance to rethink what sort of country we want to live in.