History, man

I’ve been around long enough to have lived through a good number of events that seem likely to be viewed by posterity as historically significant. The earliest of these that I was really conscious of was Margaret Thatcher’s victory in the UK General Election of 1979; I remember hearing the results coming in and, even with a child’s limited experience, feeling that a lot of what I understood about how the world worked was about to change. So it proved; Thatcher, along with Ronald Reagan in the US, and ideological allies elsewhere, went on to unravel the Keynesian settlement of the post-war years, and usher in the neoliberal decades that were to follow.

All this coincided with my early adult life, during which I received my formative political education, so it’s not surprising that I tend to think of the 1980s, bookended by the Thatcher/Reagan revolution and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, as the key period in recent history, but of course to anyone under about the age of 40 subsequent developments probably loom larger.

Foremost among these might be the events of September 11th 2001, which are once again prominent in the public consciousness, due to the 20th anniversary, but also because of the recent ignominious conclusion of the western imperial adventure in Afghanistan.

Joe Biden has come under intense criticism for his handling of the US departure, mainly from those, like Tony Blair, who were responsible for expanding the “War on Terror” from a defensive strike against the likes of Al-Qaeda into a mission to forcibly reshape the world into the image of bourgeois liberal democracy, in Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond, but his decision to honour the withdrawal agreement negotiated by his predecessor was a pragmatic recognition that the task was impossible.

So once again it feels like the tectonic plates of global politics are moving into a new orientation, and we are left to try to make sense of what is happening, and anticipate what may develop. When I was taking my first political steps back in the days of Thatcher, I was taught to take a long view, and look for the antecedents that could explain the trajectory of events. I think this is the right approach, though my experience on the left over the years has been that we tend to use our analytical tools less to fashion victories, and more to understand defeats. I worry sometimes that the current generation of activists lacks this historical perspective; we seem to live in an era where the only thing that can capture people’s attention is what is happening directly to them, right now. But that’s probably just the old man in me grousing that the youngsters don’t pay us veterans enough respect, and envying their opportunity to succeed where we failed. I’ll be history myself soon enough, and while I may be a little irked that I’m unlikely to see the promised land, I’m sure we’ll get there soon enough.

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.

Still looking at the stars

We already commemorated Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering space flight on the half centennial back in 2011, so we’ll just mark the 60th anniversary by linking to that post, and noting sadly that, despite our hopes a decade ago, capitalism is still going strong, and inequality is worse than ever. Perhaps we’ll have better news to report in 2031…

A bit longer to reign over us

Sombre music has been playing on the radio today, as the nation, or at least that part of it that takes an interest in such things, mourns the death of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

Unsurprisingly, given that he was 99, and had been in poor health recently, the BBC and the serious newspapers had detailed obituaries ready to roll out. Philip certainly had an eventful early life; fleeing with his family when the Greeks decided they had no further need of monarchs, wandering penniless around Europe in the 30s, smartly choosing the right side to fight on in the war, then striking lucky by marrying into the only royal family on the continent that still had some staying power. Much has been made of his sacrifice in accepting a supporting role to his spouse when she ascended to the throne, and it is true that his life after 1952 was weighed down by the call of desperately dull duty, though I imagine that the limitless wealth and privilege provided some compensation.

The Duke’s passing is of course merely a dress-rehearsal for the main event; the day when Elizabeth II herself exits this mortal realm. No doubt in the weeks to come we will hear a lot about how the institution of monarchy provides the country with a reassuring stability, and I expect that when a succession eventually occurs there will be little in the way of serious protest. Despite the regal facade the country is already a de facto bourgeois republic, so the ruling class have no motivation to upset the current order, while the proletariat have more pressing struggles to address. In any case the Queen’s longevity means that no one under the age of 90 has had to think much about the issue, and the easy option will be to just let the show roll on. I’m sure we’ll get around to abolishing the monarchy eventually, but it may be some time before all the Windsors are obliged to actually earn a living.

Incomplete deliverance

Back in 2016 I identified the story of Donald Trump’s run for President as a narrative of national redemption; the US, having peered into the abyss of fascism, would reject such Old World extremism, and confidently carry on down the road of enlightenment and democracy.

It’s taken four years longer than I expected, but, with today’s inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, our transatlantic cousins do seem to be bringing the tale to a happy ending. Even the most optimistic liberal would have to recognise that it’s not that simple though. One can hardly say that the country unequivocally rejected Trump, when he won nearly 75 million votes, more than he received in 2016. He would almost certainly have been re-elected were it not for the coronavirus pandemic, and, even if the man himself is forced to retire from politics by his various legal entanglements, there are plenty of would-be successors ready to take up his mantle.

I would argue that Trump was not the antithesis of the American experiment, but rather its inevitable conclusion. The divisions that he exploited were there from the start, and while Joe Biden may be able to calm things for a while with an injection of administrative competence, in the long run more radical solutions will surely be required. Perhaps future generations will look back on the Trump era, not exactly with gratitude, but at least as the time when the need for change became inarguably obvious.

Premature insurrection

Events in Washington this week have, understandably enough, provoked a fair bit of pearl-clutching among both liberals and conservatives, the latter especially declaring themselves shocked – shocked! – that an unstable narcissist, whose every whim they had hitherto indulged, should stoop so low as to defile the sacred grove of democracy that is the US Capitol.

One does not wish to make light of an incident that cost five people their lives, but I think history will see this episode not as a thwarted rebellion, but rather a case of the deluded experiencing a hard collision with reality. Trump and his followers may yearn for a fascist coup, but there is no sign that the bulk of the US ruling class is ready to contemplate that level of disruption. Why would they? There is no significant anti-capitalist threat from the left – such movements that exist, particularly BLM, are asking the right questions, but the situation is nothing like Germany in the 30s, when there was a mass Communist Party, and the recent example of a successful proletarian revolution in Russia. US capital has time to give Joe Biden a chance to calm things down, and has no need to turn to Hitler figure just yet.

That’s not to say there won’t be more mayhem from the extreme right in the months to come, but the important thing to remember is that violence is not synonymous with a threat to state power, and, conversely, non-violence can be the strongest agent for change. This explains why the peaceful marches for racial equality over the summer were met with massed ranks of National Guardsmen, while Trump’s goons were allowed more or less free rein to run riot in the halls of Congress, at least until the spectacle became too embarrassing. The State knows which group presents a real danger to its existence, and which can be allowed to blow off a bit of steam.

My worry is not that the fascists will seize control of the government, but that their foot-soldiers will be co-opted by the government as a tool against the left. Countering this will require organisation and education, to win the disaffected away from the right, and into the struggle for progressive change.

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.

Thoughts on La Peste in the time of Covid-19

Mentioning The Plague last week inspired me (like everyone else on the planet apparently) to re-read my old copy of Albert Camus’ classic novel.

[Some spoilers ahead – if you haven’t read The Plague already I’d highly recommend it.]

I first read La Peste when I was at university, more than 30 years ago. Although chronologically the mid-1980s are slightly closer to the present day than to the late 40s, when the book was first published, culturally my student days firmly belonged to that period after the Second World War when the conflict was still a living memory. It was thus natural that I read the work as allegorical, specifically relating to the German occupation of France, which Camus had lived through, and which he played a central part in resisting. This was certainly how it was received when it came out, though the novel’s nuanced depiction of what had become a French national myth was not universally popular, and Camus was criticised by contemporaries, including Satre and de Beauvoir, for representing the conscious evil of Nazism as an apolitical pestilence.

The last month or so has, unsurprisingly, seen a flurry of articles attempting to relate The Plague to our current circumstances. Interestingly, the authors of most of these pieces seem to have taken the novel more or less at face value, as a story of men struggling to persevere in the face of an overwhelming epidemic, and have dismissed or overlooked the connection with the Occupation. I guess that is understandable, given our present concerns, though I think that it does reflect an underlying current evident in modern-day discourse; a tendency towards ahistorical analysis that is so focused on what we are personally experiencing right now that it cannot appreciate that the past isn’t always best understood when viewed through the prism of our latest preoccupations.

Having revisited the beleaguered town of Oran, so vividly depicted in The Plague, I can see how the book can be appreciated as a straightforward narrative, as, at that level, it is a gripping story. Camus masterfully builds a sense of dread as the unseen enemy relentlessly advances. The main characters may inhabit allegorical roles, but this does not obscure their individual humanity. Key scenes, such as the death of M. Othon’s son, or Grand’s grief outside the toy shop, are powerfully moving. The resolution is somewhat downbeat, but satisfying in its ambiguity. (I would like to have seen Dr Rieux reunited with his wife; this perhaps betrays my over-sentimental nature). There are some shortcomings; the complete lack of non-white characters in a story set in North Africa for example, or the way that the female characters are mostly ciphers who exist only to illuminate the male characters’ internal motivations. Overall though, after reading the novel one can appreciate why Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957.

Despite the seeming relevance to our present difficulties, I would still say that The Plague is essentially about France’s reckoning with the legacy of the Occupation, though Camus clearly broadens that out to encompass a theme familiar from his other work; the necessity of struggling against the absurdity of existence. The pestilence is life itself, with all its arbitrary cruelties, and the protagonists grapple with the question of how to live and act ethically, when everything is ultimately meaningless. Some, like Paneloux, look to God to guide them, though they are forced to acknowledge that His intentions are incomprehensible. (Secular orthodoxies, as Tarrou points out, are little more helpful). Tarrou and Rieux find purpose in doing what needs to be done to relieve suffering; the former is somewhat demoralised by the scale of the challenge, while the latter is sustained by focusing on the immediate tasks, and by his belief that humans are mostly decent (as exemplified by Grand, who, despite his own problems, makes his contribution uncomplainingly). Rambert (the character with whom I can most identify) is initially angry to find himself cast into the situation by misfortune, and makes plans to escape, but cannot bring himself to abandon his fellow citizens, and joins in the fight. (Rambert, unlike Rieux, is at least rewarded by seeing his wife again). Even Cottard, who accommodates to the new situation, and profits from it, is portrayed sympathetically, as motivated by fear and weakness rather than malice.

I’m not sure that the current crisis, significant though it is, has quite reached the level of seriousness of a world war, where individuals are forced to confront such pressing existential dilemmas. Certainly I have not felt moved to closely examine my ethical outlook, though perhaps that is because my response to events has been largely dictated by my professional circumstances, and I have not, as yet, been obliged to make any choices that are more difficult than usual. I hope that, if it comes to it, I will act as admirably as Dr Rieux, though I suspect than I will lean more heavily on ideology than Camus would have approved of.

In Simone de Beauvoir’s novel The Mandarins, Henri, the character based on Camus, recalls the intensity of wartime, when he “was busy writing his editorials, a revolver in his desk drawer.” I don’t know if I want to go through that much excitement (and it would obviously be better for all concerned if the situation was resolved without too much more social disruption), but perhaps this dislocation will do me some good in the long run, even if it is only to force me to make my own peace with the Absurd.

Trump Rex

I went to see Parasite this week, and, fair play to the Academy, it is a better film than Little Women. I still think Saoirse Ronan should have won Best Actress though.

In other class-struggle-related news, it looks like Donald Trump is determined to live up to accusations that he is a fascist, by openly comparing himself to a king, and loudly proclaiming his belief that he has the right to use the supposedly independent Justice Department to persecute his political enemies. This latter boast has prompted much hand-wringing among liberals, who seem to have forgotten that selective prosecution on ideological grounds has a long history in the US – just ask the Black Panthers.

Now that Trump has upped the stakes by going after people who would consider themselves part of the establishment, it’s likely that there will be some sort of institutional response that he will be able to characterise as a deep-state backlash, of the kind existing in the fevered imaginations of Q-Anon enthusiasts, thus furthering his narrative that he is on the side of the ordinary man in the battle with unaccountable elites, and boosting his chances of re-election.

Tempting though it is in these circumstances to cheer on whatever elements of the government machine Trump is taking aim at, that would be a bad mistake – the FBI are not our friends. Getting involved in the internal squabbles of the ruling class can only be a distraction; we need to remember that all of them are our enemies, and concentrate on building a movement that can sweep aside the whole rotten system, liberating us from the leech of capitalism once and for all.

Delayed disgratification

Not for the first time, what promised to be a decisive day in the Brexit saga has turned out to be anything but. For reasons that I can’t summon the energy to summarise, the meaningful vote on Boris Johnson’s deal has been delayed, perhaps until next week, but possibly longer.

Theoretically, Johnson should now be required to request a further postponement of the departure date, which, reports suggest, the EU will grudgingly grant. Johnson is still insisting that he will do no such thing, but he is probably just waiting until his hand is forced by the courts, so that he can burnish his populist credentials by claiming that he is the victim of an establishment plot.

As someone who wants to see the whole Brexit project consigned to the dustbin of history, I should be feeling pleased by this development, but I can’t help feeling that the continual deferment of the day of reckoning is just allowing the left to avoid facing up to the fact that we have lost this particular battle, and we need to be getting ready for the rest of the war. If the right want to use Brexit to ramp up the class struggle – which they do – then we should tell them to bring it on, because, history tells us, when it comes to that fight, we will fuck them up.

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