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…

Not bystanding

Having watched the highlights, such as they were, of the first Presidential debate, I find myself concurring with the general view among commentators, that a new low has been reached in US political discourse. Trump made no effort to advance any sort of vision beyond his usual litany of incoherent grievance, calculated to inflame the fear and anger of his core supporters. Biden could hardly avoid looking Presidential in comparison, which will have played well with those already planning to vote for him, as well as winning over some waverers, but this seems unlikely to significantly alter the trajectory of the campaign.

The important point to grasp is that the liberal notion that fascism can be defeated in “the marketplace of ideas” represents a serious misunderstanding of the nature of the struggle. The likes of Trump do not come to events like these in good faith, to calmly discuss policy differences in the hope of convincing undecided voters of the merits of their platform, but rather view them as opportunities to further their narrative of conflict, where uncompromising strength is the ultimate virtue, and falsehood and provocation are legitimate tools in the pursuit of total victory. Trump was not trying to win any new hearts and minds last night; he was rallying his troops for the battle ahead.

This presents a dilemma for the left; one does not want to validate Trump’s apocalyptic fantasies, but, when the President of the United States is openly calling on white supremacist militias to ready themselves for action, it does seem irresponsible not to prepare some sort of response.

That doesn’t mean that we have to mirror Trump’s violence. The strength of the proletariat is in their solidarity; faced with that, Trump’s goons and enablers, whether in the streets, the Senate, or the Supreme Court, are powerless. Between now and election day there needs to be some serious organising done; to be ready to counter any attempt at voter suppression, and to turn out in mass demonstrations if, or more likely when, Trump tries to dispute the outcome.

Of course I’m writing this from an ocean away, but I’m confident that my US comrades will have come to the same conclusions, and will already be working on building the movement. The next few weeks may get ugly, but I’m sure that progress will prevail.

RBG RIP

As if the current election season wasn’t fraught enough, the stakes have been raised even further by the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

For about a moment after I heard the news I thought there was no way that Republicans would have the gall to attempt to fill the vacancy before election day, after obstructing Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland for ten months in 2016, but then I realised, yes, of course they would, and, sure enough, Mitch McConnell has announced his intention to push for confirmation quickly, though he left the exact timetable vague, perhaps reflecting some uncertainty over whether he has the votes to support such a course of action.

To be fair, I would do exactly the same thing in his position, though I hope I’d be a little more honest in acknowledging that the manoeuvre was a partisan power-play rather than some high-minded act of principle. At least the situation makes clear once again the thoroughly political nature of the Law, and the need to approach the confirmation as another front in the class struggle.

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.

Putsch comes to shove

So it seems that Donald Trump couldn’t wait until he lost the election in November to try out his dictator pose, which was on full display last night as he declared war on his domestic opponents.

As is perhaps typical of white, male, leftists, I had been so preoccupied with the threat that Trump poses to bourgeois democracy that I had overlooked the fact that the front line of US politics has always been situated in the struggle of super-oppressed minorities, for whom the state represents an ever-present threat to their very existence. The uprising in response to the murder of George Floyd, and the subsequent police violence, has brought this to the forefront of national consciousness, though of course for the communities concerned it is simply their everyday reality.

This is not a recent development; the US was founded on slavery, and racial injustice remains intrinsic to the functioning of its society. Despite this the holder of the office of President is expected to at least pay lip-service to the idea of equality, so Trump’s break with this convention, and his willingness to fan the flames of intolerance, is a ominous development.

How far Trump is serious about this, rather than just rhetorically pandering to his base as part of his reelection campaign, is open to question. Even if he does invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act, there are still plenty of legal, political, and institutional obstacles in the way of his plan to use the armed forces as his personal militia. The extent to which his polarisation strategy will succeed is also dependent on how his political opponents react, and whether any sections of the Republican Party lose their nerve and abandon him. Factor in the continuing epidemic, and widespread economic collapse, and it becomes impossible to predict how all this will play out, beyond saying that it will be a long, difficult summer.

Coup de tweet

In another sign that Animal Crossing is turning into the Second Life de nos jours, notable politicians have been spotted on the platform. Perhaps Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez visiting islands owned by her Twitter followers isn’t quite on the scale of Hillary Clinton setting up an SL campaign HQ back in 2008, but it does, rather depressingly, suggest that no corner of cyberspace will a haven from the upcoming Presidential election, which is shaping up to be even uglier than feared.

This shouldn’t be a surprise of course; with the stakes so high for Donald Trump there is no gutter he won’t stoop to. A couple of months ago it looked like he might be able to coast to victory on the strength of being the incumbent at a time of relative prosperity, but his disastrously inept response to the coronavirus crisis, and the subsequent economic implosion, have left him staring defeat in the face, with little option but to continue his steady erosion of democracy.

So we have been treated to the spectacle of the President of the United States of America using his Twitter account to traduce a dead woman’s reputation, as part of a ludicrous conspiracy theory aimed at one of his many critics in the media. This seems like lunacy, and perhaps it is, but it also fits in with his strategy of portraying himself as an outsider, battling the liberal establishment, which, predictably, has reacted with outrage to this latest transgression. The evidence of 2016 suggests that his core voters will lap this up, but it does risk alienating his more marginal support. To cover that angle, Trump has also been tweeting baseless allegations of potential electoral fraud, a move transparently designed to prepare the ground for him refusing to accept defeat if the vote goes against him in November.

This is all quite alarming. Since the fabled checks and balances of the US constitution have proven to be worthless in the face of Trump’s dictatorial ambitions, it might appear that the only thing that can prevent the most powerful nation on the planet falling completely under the control of an unstable despot is his own party turning against him. Given that the GOP refused to even look at the evidence for impeachment, that seems like a forlorn hope.

Fortunately though we don’t have to depend on the Republican Party to stop the putsch. For all his bombast, Trump’s support across the nation is very much a minority, and any attempt to steal the election will, I’m sure, provoke a popular uprising. As ever, when bourgeois democracy is under threat, and the liberals vacillate, it’s the proletariat who are called upon to save the day.

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.