Boris Johnson has been Prime Minister for just over a year now, and 100,000 people are dead from COVID-19. Some (I could not possibly guess who) would be of a mind to say those two facts are related. But in the analysis and opinion pieces by both those who support him and those who oppose him, there is a fundamental mistake made in how they see Boris’ role in the death toll and in general during the Pandemic. It is, I think, important to examine exactly what the through line of thought is on both sides, and to explain exactly why it is wrong.
In particular, the common thread throughout a lot of the discourse and media surrounding Boris is the lack of agency. This consistent element should be surprising when you remember he is the leader of the country. But from what seems to be a concentrated effort from the journalistic profession, alongside an unconscious predisposition in how we perceive our political offices, the way people sometimes speak about Boris Johnson seems to paint him as a borderline Beckettian figure. A hapless clown or everyman struggling against odds that seem to dwarf him. And as noted, this description seems to proliferate both positive and negative accounts of his government. We shall take a brief look at some examples to illustrate this. In a Daily Express piece last year, a reader is quoted as saying: ‘I watched him yesterday and I don't believe anybody could have done anything any different. I believe he's tried his best to keep the country moving and I don't believe Boris is the enemy, the virus is. There's lots of things I could blame the government for but the virus situation is not one of them.’
Another reader was quoted as believing that ‘Boris is doing his best in an unprecedented situation of pandemic. [...] I don't think that any person or politician could honestly say that they would like to be in his position with all of the added responsibility at this point in time. Under the circumstances Boris is doing very well.’ In an article on the parliament focused online journal The House, Sebastian Whale states with an undeserved certainty that any negative traits or carelessness would almost have certainly been changed after the PM caught the virus himself. Whales goes on to say:
'But, as we all know, the prime minister's perspective has been shaken by a seismic series of events. Sobered by his own brush with death, he is locked in an internal battle between his political instincts and his responsibilities as the leader of the country.'
He also refers to journalist cum court jester Robert Peston’s tweet at the time, which expressed a similar sentiment: ‘‘Having babies change[sic] us. Near-death experiences change us. @BorisJohnson has the full set. So will he become a very different PM from the one the UK voted for in December?’’ Both these opinions reflect the dominant discourse surrounding the Prime Minister, one where he is not a man in a position of power, with his own political agenda, subject to the varying political and economic pressures on the British Markets that demand certain decisions be made. In this he moves from Beckettian to Clown to Dickensian Scrooge, where after having encountered death, he returns to the world to let us know he has changed his ways. He certainly changed his tone for a while, and some of his rhetoric along with it. This culminated in yet another shift in persona facilitated by the British media, where after tonight’s admittance to him being responsible for the 100,000 death toll from the ongoing pandemic, several newspapers focused on the sadness of his apology. He returns to the character of the everyman struggling against daunting odds, and according to the tabloids deserving of the public’s sympathy. As Ross McCafferty put it: ‘They honestly want us to feel sorry for him.’
With such an effort emphasised by esteemed papers like the Scum (Ed: The Sun), you almost have to wonder how such a death toll was reached in the first place (Obviously you do not, but we will return to this soon).
On the other side of the political aisle, a similar tack is chosen, despite what Boris’ critics may say. But whereas as Tory sympathetic media might present Johnson as the underdog fighting a losing battle against the odds, his critics present this in an inverted light. Boris is still failing, not in a manner akin to a heroic battle or war effort, but due to his own incompetence to rise to meet the challenges, struggling not with the virus but rather his own political instincts and impulses. It sees him as the clown, but not in a sympathetic light. As Michael White writes in the New European:
'Recent days must have been very tough for him, forced to confront decisions on pandemic containment he knows will make him unpopular and go against his crowd-pleasing, Boris-pleasing nature. He dithered in March and knows he must not repeat the mistake as weekly infection rates double again. But right from the start it's been written all over Johnson's face that this prime minister doesn't like asking people to obey the rules and be responsible, habits of "common sense and restraint" (copyright M Gove) he has preferred to avoid.'
This line of thought was especially compounded by the Dominic Cummings scandal early in the lockdown. John Crace summed up the particular mood in the Guardian, calling the Tory Government as follows:
'A failed state run by a bad joke of a prime minister, who prioritises the job security of his elite advisers over the health of millions. A man who sees no need to be across the most basic points of government policy and is so inarticulate that he can't even start a sentence let alone finish one.'
In another article Crace slams Boris on his vacillation between different decisions, arguing that ‘Yet again Boris’s inability to take the tough decisions – hoping for the best has always been his default position in both his personal and public life – had further endangered the country.’ These critiques are not necessarily wrong, but they apply too much of the current situation purely to Boris’ personal character, to the popular conception of him among those who are left leaning, that he is a bumbling prat undeserving of the office he was elected to. ‘Elect a clown, expect a circus’ would be the way to sum that broad group’s opinion of Johnson. But this makes a very similar mistake to American liberals' perception of Trump, one where he is a foreign presence (in more ways than one) who has invaded and desecrated a sacred institution. It is, to an extent, as mistaken and superfluous as the Murdoch press’ write up of Boris as the underdog. Whatever Boris is actually like as a person, is not really that relevant and misses the point. It presents him as just a human being responding to events, and not a political leader who represents certain interests and agendas beyond himself. Which leads me to the thesis of this piece: I state that what we are missing is that Boris is not responding to a crisis, Boris is the Crisis. By this I mean, that in governing, he reflects and practises the logic of the crisis, both economic and political. Like Trump, he is a symptom of an economic order and system. This system has a very familiar name; neoliberalism. To explain this statement, and the arguments behind it, we must turn first to a different time and place, to Subcommandante Marcos and the struggles of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN).
Named after the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, the EZLN, often called Zapatistas for short, were a mostly indigenous guerrilla group that rose up on Jan 1 1994 in Chiapas, in response to the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which sought to deprive Indigenous Mexicans of their land through privatisation. The Zapatistas took several towns, engaged in armed conflict with the Mexican military, before agreeing to peace talks, which would halt at several points due to the Mexican government's engaging in military offenses or revising the accords agreed upon at the talks. Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, a Mestizo and one of the few members who was not indigenous, by chance ended up acting as the organisation's spokesperson, writing communiques in print media and on the internet, and being interviewed by media outlets. One such series of communiques, first written in response to a Child’s drawing of a beetle, involved a pipe smoking beetle named Durito, who Marcos would often speak to in tales that functioned both as stories and political commentaries. In the 2nd part of it, he discusses Neoliberalism with the Quixotic philosopher beetle. I quote, at length, a section of Marcos’ short story:
"And what brings you here after so many years?"
"Well, I was thinking and since I had nothing better to do, I said to myself, why not take a stroll around the old haunts and say hello to old friends," I responded.
"Even old mountains still turn green!" Durito protested indignantly.
After that followed a long while of "hmmm, hmmm" and of his inquisitive looks.
I couldn't take it any longer and confessed to him,
"The truth is that we are withdrawing because the government launched an offensive against us . . ."
"You ran!" said Durito.
I tried to explain to him what a strategic withdrawal is, a tactical retreat, and whatever occurred to me in that moment.
"You ran," said Durito, this time with a sigh.
"Well, yes, I ran and so what?" I said, annoyed, more with myself than with him.
Durito didn't press. He stayed quiet a good while. Only the smoke of the two pipes formed a bridge between us. Minutes later he said,
"It seems like there's something more that's bothering you, not just the 'strategic retreat.'"
"'Withdrawal,' 'strategic withdrawal,'" I corrected him. Durito waited for me to go on:
"The truth is that it bothers me that we weren't prepared. And it was my fault we weren't prepared. I believed the government did want dialogue and so I had given the order that the consultations with the delegates should begin. When they attacked us we were discussing the conditions of the dialogue. They surprised us. They surprised me . . ." I said with shame and anger.
Durito went on smoking, he waited for me to finish telling him everything that had happened in the last ten days. When I finished, Durito said,
And he went under a little leaf. After a while he came out pushing his little desk. After that he went for a little chair, sat down, took out some papers, and began to look through them with a worried air.
"Hmmm, hmmm," he said with every few pages that he read. After a time he exclaimed,
"Here it is!"
"Here's what?" I asked, intrigued.
"Don't interrupt me!" Durito said seriously and solemnly. And added, "pay attention. You have the same problem as many others. It refers to the economic and social doctrine known as 'neoliberalism' . . ."
"Just what I needed now . . . classes in political economy," I thought. It seems like Durito heard what I was thinking because he scolded me:
"Ssshh! This isn't just any class! This is a treatise of the highest order."
That bit about the "a treatise of the highest order" seemed exaggerated to me, but I got ready to listen to it. Durito continued after some hmmm, hmmms.
"It is a metatheoretical problem! Yes, you start from the idea that 'neoliberalism' is a doctrine. And by 'you,' I am referring to those who insist on frameworks that are rigid and square like your head. You think that 'neoliberalism' is a capitalist doctrine to confront the economic crises that capitalism itself attributes to 'populism.' Right?"
Durito doesn't let me answer.
"Of course right! Well, it turns out that 'neoliberalism' is not a theory to confront or explain the crisis. It is the crisis itself made theory and economic doctrine! That is, 'neoliberalism' hasn't the least coherence; it has no plans or historic perspective. In the end, pure theoretical shit."
"How strange . . . I've never heard or read that interpretation," I said with surprise.
"Of course! How could you, if it just occurred to me in this moment!" says Durito with pride.
"And what has that got to do with our running away, excuse me, with our withdrawal?" I asked, doubting such a novel theory.
"Ah! Ah! Elementary, my dear Watson Sup! There are no plans; there are no perspectives, only i-m-p-r-o-v-i-s-a-t-i-o-n. The government has no consistency: one day we're rich, another day we're poor, one day they want peace, another day they want war, one day fasting, another day stuffed, and so on. Do I make myself clear?" Durito inquires.
"Almost . . ." I hesitate and scratch my head.
"And so?" I ask seeing that Durito isn't continuing with his discourse.
"It's going to explode. Boom! Like a balloon blown up too much. It has no future. We're going to win," says Durito as he puts his papers away.
"We?" I ask maliciously.
"Of course, 'we!' It's clear that you won't be able to without my help. No, don't try to raise objections. You need a super-advisor. I'm already learning French, for continuity's sake."
I stayed quiet. I don't know what is worse: discovering that we're governed by improvisation, or imagining Durito as a super-secretary in the cabinet of an improbable transitional government.
"I surprised you, eh? Well, don't feel bad. As long as you don't squash me with your big boots I will always be able to clarify for you the road to follow in the course of history, which, despite its ups and downs, will raise this country up, because united . . . because united . . . Now that I think of it, I haven't written to my old lady," Durito cracks up laughing.
"I thought you were serious!" I pretend to be annoyed and throw a little branch at him. Durito dodges it and keeps laughing.
Once calmed down, I ask him, "And where did you get those conclusions that neoliberalism is the crisis made economic doctrine?"
"Ah! From this book that explains the 1988-1994 economic project of Carlos Salinas de Gortari," he answers and shows me a little book with the Solidarity logo.(17)
"But Salinas isn't president anymore . . . it seems," I say with a doubt that shakes me.
"I know that, but look who drew up the plan," says Durito and points out a name. I read,
"Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León," I say surprised and add, "So there isn't any break in the chain?"
"What there is . . . is a den of thieves," says Durito, implacable.
Neoliberalism, for Marcos, is the ideology of improvisation par excellence. Its structure is not so much a complex, interlocking schematic or blueprint as it is a combination of several seemingly mismatched, contradicting pieces. Marcos describes Seven of those almost infinite, conflicting fragments in this communique:
1. First piece: The concentration of wealth and the distribution of poverty
2. Second piece: The globalization of exploitation
3. Third piece: Migration, the errant nightmare
4. Fourth Piece; Financial globalization and the globalization of corruption and crime
5. Fifth piece; Legitimate violence on behalf of an illegitimate power?
6. Sixth piece: megapolitics and the dwarfs
7. Seventh piece: The pockets of resistance
In the context of Britain’s political situation, what this means is the often changing stances and policies of the government, are not so much due entirely to personal incompetence, but rather are a manifestation of the overwhelming pressures of the world market wounded by the sacrifices induced by the pandemic response. Intervening with prejudice and then relaxing in turn, the government is trying to appease and maintain both the population of the Nation State and the market from which this Nation State draws a lot of its power. It is this type of situation created by Neoliberalism that art critic John Berger drew comparisons to in his analysis of a Hieronymous Bosch painting, the depiction of hell from the Millennium Triptych:
'There is no horizon there. There is no continuity between actions, there are no pauses, no paths, no pattern, no past and no future. There is only the clamour of the disparate, fragmentary present. Everywhere there are surprises and sensations, yet nowhere is there any outcome. Nothing flows through: everything interrupts. There is a kind of spatial delirium.'
It is this constant clamour and noise that constitutes the rhythm of our political space right now. Repeatedly the Tories have followed up periods of lockdowns and restrictions with relaxation in order to “keep the economy afloat”. A BBC summary of the current death toll reflects on these attempts to do so:
'Desperate to boost the economy, the government launched the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, offering people discounted meals our during August. To what extent it contributed to the rise in the autumn is much argued about but certainly some doctors blame it in part for an increase in patients seen.'
Even the initial delay to the lockdown cost 20,000 lives according to a health expert. The people ask, ‘What good is the economy doing well if the people do not survive?’. Neoliberalism responds, ‘What good are the people surviving if there isn’t a market to survive for?’ It is this intrinsically inconsistent nature that has proven a resilient foe, which is no doubt surprising for those who think a return of ‘common sense’ and ‘grown up politics’ would prove fatally anathemic to the government's style of politics. But the truth is when you have a State that is willing to improvise according to the turbulent motions of a capitalist economy, simply expecting your own pragmatism and self image of ‘electability’ to prevail is hopelessly naive, at best, and more likely, at worst it is complicit with the death and destruction that the system inflicts on many marginalised groups.
This is evident in the Labour Leader Keir Starmer’s “efforts” as Leader of the Opposition. Believed to be the remedy to his predecessor’s cumbersome record, Starmer has faced some recent criticism for apparently not offering enough of a political program (Though not from many Labour MPs it must be noted). Noted for agreeing with many of the government’s early decisions before changing his mind later on, this has earned Starmer a nickname from the Conservatives, who ‘have branded him “Captain Hindsight”, someone who waits until the final moment to take a stance, when it’s clear which way the wind is blowing. It’s a charge that’s in danger of sticking.’ Part of the reason for this was his stubborn commitment to seeing schools stayed open last year until hours before when he changed his mind, and as Sienna Rodgers noted, this inconsistency was present beforehand in his cabinets differing opinions on schools staying open. In another article, Rodgers notes that his abstentions on two bills, the Overseas Operations Bill and the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill, or the “spy cops bill” as it is commonly known. This particular abstention led to some rebellion within the PLP, as the spycops bill led to seven MPs resigning from the shadow cabinet.
Afraid of having a ‘nefarious’ label of a radical political ideology attached to them, Starmer’s Labour seeks to offer more constructive criticism and sternly worded disapprovals of the government’s tact in passing these laws and lockdown regulations. It reflects the desire for a return to a time of civility when the clashing jagged edges of the many pieces of the neoliberal system were not so openly exposed. And in trying to stick with a government whose driving force is the crisis as ideology, they come looking like flip flopping ditherers as well, a bad attempt at the Marx Brothers mirror gag. This is not so much of a problem, because unlike the previous shadow cabinet, effective opposition for them is defined primarily over how you look compared to the government. This is why for the most part their criticisms do not work, because they are attempting to present the decisions by the government as irrational incompetence, similar to critiques by journalists, failing to see that the fact the government’s policy decisions are constantly in flux is a sign that this incoherence is in fact the dominant logic or reason of the contemporary political situation. It is the rationality of the market, insofar as the market seeks to keep the absolute parasite alive, profit, as its prevailing reason.
So what can be done in opposition? Well, I think some of the answers (or at least the right questions to ask) come from Zapatista's current actions. Last year they released a statement titled ‘A DECLARATION… FOR LIFE’. In it they declared that whilst there are differences between the varying cultures, societies and demographics in the world, they all share the same earth, and are joined in a commitment to fight for it, and furthermore:
'The conviction that there are many worlds that live and fight within the world. And that any pretence of homogeneity and hegemony threatens the essence of the human being: freedom. The equality of humanity lies in the respect for difference. In its diversity resides its likeness.'
To facilitate this struggle, the Zapatistas stated they would hold meetings around the world on the 5 continents. Firstly they would travel to Europe, and hold meetings there to discuss how to wage the struggle for life. The inspiration we should take from the Zapatistas is to give the varying communities within our society autonomy, and to create a political culture amongst all of them that is autonomous from state politics. In order to counteract the State, whose lifeblood is the death inflicted on minority communities to sustain the profit margin, one must look to these communities as the creators of new political life. And by showing solidarity with them in resisting the infliction of this death, we may find new ways of living, and emancipatory politics may start to become immediate facts of our everyday life. As Bifo Berardi states in his ‘Post-Futurist Manifesto,’ ‘We declare that the splendour of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of autonomy. Each to her own rhythm; nobody must be constrained to march on a uniform pace.’ We must find ways of existing and becoming that is not set to the fast pace of the capitalist social factory that is revealing itself as having always-already been a slaughterhouse. For as Marcos concludes his summary of Neoliberalism, the 7th piece are the autonomous pockets of resistance against its imperialist necrocapitalism. He refers to Zapatistas themselves as one such example, but in the end he states:
'This is a model for a pocket of resistance, but don't pay too much attention to it. There are as many models as there are resistances, and as many worlds as in the world. So draw the model you prefer. As far as this[sic] things about the pockets is concerned, they are rich in diversity, as are the resistances.
There are, no doubt, more pieces of the neoliberal jigsaw puzzle. For example: the mass media, culture, pollution, pandemias. We only wanted to show you here the profiles of 7 of them.
These 7 are enough so that you, after you draw, color and cut them out, can see that it is impossible to put them together. And this is the problem of the world which globalization pretends to construct:
the pieces don't fit.
For this and other reasons which do not fit into the space of this text, it is necessary to make a new world.
A world where many worlds fit, where all worlds fit...'
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