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.

Unenabled

If we’re going to keep our 1930s analogy going, I guess this week’s parliamentary manoeuvring will be the equivalent of the threats and cajoling that Hitler deployed to ensure the passage of the Enabling Act through the Reichstag in 1933. While the Nazis directed the worst of their violence towards their political enemies, Boris Johnson has turned his anger on his own party, warning potential rebels that they risk ending their careers if they support efforts to stall a no-deal exit.

Despite this it seems highly likely that MPs will vote tomorrow to compel Johnson to request a further extension, something he has vowed he will never do. Whether this will actually stop the country’s headlong drive towards the abyss is another question; the government has strongly hinted that it doesn’t necessarily feel obliged to follow the law. That may be a step too far for Johnson; this evening he seemed to be leaning towards attempting to win a mandate to leave in an October election.

That in turn will depend on Labour agreeing to an early poll, which is not a sure thing, since no one trusts Johnson not to renege on a promise of a pre-Brexit election date and delay voting until after we’ve crashed out.

It’s going to be an interesting week, though it’s deeply frustrating that the fate of the nation depends on a handful of Tory dissidents putting the public good before personal ambition. The sooner an election comes, and lets us all have our say, the better.

Eternal vigilance

Eighty years ago today German tanks rolled across the Polish border, starting a conflict that in the following six years would kill at least 70 million people, and touch nearly every corner of the globe. By 1939 it was clear that the rise of fascism had made war inevitable, but the decade leading up to then had presented numerous opportunities for the Nazis to be thwarted, and disaster avoided.

Looking back on the political turmoil of the 1930s from the perspective of our relatively peaceful times, it’s tempting to conclude that concerns about the behaviour of the current government are ridiculously overblown – Boris Johnson may be showing scant regard for constitutional convention, but actual political violence is rare, there is still a free press, and no one is getting sent to a concentration camp.

The Nazis didn’t come to power overnight though; the road to dictatorship involved a gradual chipping away of democratic rights. At every step contemporary observers convinced themselves that, once in government, Hitler would abandon his populist extremism and adopt a more moderate approach, or, failing that, that those around him would ensure he didn’t cause too much trouble. History tells us how well that worked out.

Admittedly the Weimar Republic was hardly a model of stability, and it’s not unreasonable to expect that British political institutions might prove to be a bit more resilient. Still, I’d rather not leave that to chance; that’s why I was out on the streets this weekend, and I’m guessing I’ll be on a few more demonstrations before this sorry business is over.

Reach for the stars

Regular readers will recall that we’ve posted on the topic of space travel several times in the past, marking, among other things, Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering flight into orbit, and Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon.

The tone of our previous pieces has been mostly elegiac, noting with regret that the promise of manned cosmic exploration, which seemed just around the corner in my youth, had largely stalled in the years that followed. There have of course been great strides in robotic exploration, from Mars all the way out to Pluto, and ever more sophisticated telescopes have peered into the furthest depths of the Universe, but I still find it deeply disappointing that Moon bases and space tourism aren’t a thing in the 21st century.

It’s interesting then to see that the latest anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, which, 50 years ago today, put the Eagle lander on the lunar surface, has been greeted with quite a bit of enthusiasm. I haven’t heard anyone arguing that it wasn’t a good thing to do, and there seems to be a general feeling that it’s the kind of endeavour that humanity could do with undertaking again some time soon.

I’m sure that, at least in part, this wish to travel out into the final frontier is fuelled by a desire to forget about how dispiriting the immediate future is looking here on Earth, but, whatever the motivation, it’s good to see a resurgence of belief in the idea of progress. I may reluctantly admit that I’m probably too old now to make it to Mars in person, but I’m still hoping to see some other human get there before I die.

Battle for the past

Back in 2014 we wrote about the 70th anniversary of D-Day, noting that the event had started to take on the character of distant history, as it slipped beyond the reach of living memory. Five years on, the surviving veterans are fewer in number, and the connection between the reality of their experience and the role it plays in present-day political discourse has grown correspondingly tenuous. This is especially true in the UK, perhaps unsurprisingly; given the state into which the country has descended in the last three years, we can hardly be blamed for looking back fondly on a time when we could still claim to be a global power. This does require some re-writing of history; even the normally-reliable BBC has been attributing the defeat of the Nazis entirely to the battles on the Western Front, without even mentioning the significant contribution of the Soviet Union. (Recognising this does not lessen our respect for the bravery of the troops who stormed the beaches in 1944; the action in Normandy may not have been on the scale of Stalingrad or Kursk, but it still involved a ferocity that is almost unimaginable in our more peaceful times).

Politicians using history selectively to further an agenda is not a new development of course, but it is depressing to see the sacrifice of those who fell in the titanic struggle against fascism being exploited to advance the petty schemes of the modern-day right. It shows the importance of defending the internationalist spirit that should be the true legacy of that generation, and opposing those who would see Europe once again divided.

Incassable

As I’ve noted previously, I’ve had some good times in Paris, so it was sad to watch fire ravage Notre Dame cathedral last night. Fortunately, the skill and courage of the Parisian sapeurs-pompiers ensured that the flames were extinguished before the whole structure collapsed, but it’s still going to take years, if not decades, to restore.

It’s tempting to see this event as some sort of metaphor for the fragility of seemingly eternal European institutions, but I suspect it may end up symbolising exactly the opposite; the ability of the EU to survive temporary conflagrations like Brexit. Whether the UK will be part of that future remains doubtful, though the chances of a remain outcome are certainly better than they were a few weeks ago, and seem likely to be further boosted by a good showing for pro-EU parties in the European elections next month.

As time passes, the fire at Notre Dame will become just a footnote in its centuries-long history; hopefully Brexit will fade into a similar obscurity.

Falling standards

I know that the passage of time tends to smooth off the rough edges of history, but it’s still been rather disconcerting to read the obituaries of the late George Herbert Walker Bush, in which he is portrayed as a wise statesman who skilfully navigated the treacherous international waters of the early 90s, and not, as I remember him being thought of at the time, as an out-of-touch elitist who oversaw an economic nosedive, and suffered the ignominy of being thrown out of office after only one term. Establishment commentators have generally downplayed his domestic shortcomings, and focused on his role in cementing US hegemony in the post-Soviet world, as demonstrated by his orchestration of the 1991 Gulf War, taking for granted that this development was a good thing, which is of course debatable.

I guess the present incumbent has reset expectations to such a degree that the 41st President’s failings now seem more forgivable, and, to be fair, he was clearly dedicated to public service, albeit in a patrician fashion, rather than personal enrichment. Still, I suspect that, when posterity draws up the rankings, HW will be firmly mid-table – not as bad as Harding or Buchanan, but no Lincoln or Roosevelt.