Stuart Bennett on our responses to the virus and why the current crisis means it really is time to start playing the blame game.
“I hope we don’t have an inquiry when this is over. If there are lessons to be learned, fine; but if there is just blame to be spread, forget it”. These are the words of John Rentoul, chief political commentator at The Independent newspaper and a visiting professor of politics at King’s College, London. In one tweet, Rentoul has captured perfectly the subtext that underpins both the media coverage of the ongoing pandemic and the government’s PR of its own handling of the crisis. However, now is exactly the time for the blame game to begin, and it is incumbent upon the Left to start it. To borrow a term from Žižek, criticising the state is the most authentic ethical act we can do in these times.
The Language of War and the State of Exception
Bristow, Hobson and Modi’s piece, published earlier on Everyday Analysis, expertly points to the danger of the state of exception within which we now find ourselves. Their reading and use of Judith Butler are particularly prescient: that is, the state of exception is not an exceptional circumstance, rather it is a series of acts that continuously reconstitute the exception as the norm. In other words, states of exception, such as the one we are living in right now, become the new norm. That, of course, is not to say that we will forever be living in lockdown. What is more likely is that features of the exception, such as police powers to force people into their homes, private companies being used to contact trace on a vast scale, and even charitable fundraising for the NHS and other public services (rather than use tax income), will become permanent features of our lives.
What lays the foundations for this to happen is language. To rehash Ferdinand de Saussure, language is structure. When something is said enough times over and over by enough people, it begins to have material effects. We are seeing this play out in front of our eyes in the United Kingdom. This country has a particular obsession with hagiographies of military conflicts, most notably the two world wars. One doesn’t have to go far to find people evoking the “Blitz spirit”. This was a prominent feature of the “Brexit years”. From the announcement of EU membership referendum in 2015, right up until the pandemic reached our shores, we were treated to veritable nostalgia-thon. We could overcome the difficulties of Brexit because we beat the Nazis, we were told. And it wasn’t just over-zealous right-wing commentators, our own PM was at it too. It should come as a surprise to no one that we are getting the same thing now in response to the pandemic. The PM must invoke the spirit of Churchill, while we the people must come together as we did in the Blitz. Even the economy is being treated as a casualty of war that can get over its shellshock, just as it did in after 1918.
This language is exceptionally dangerous. Every day at 5pm we see a member of the government stand a lectern at No. 10, flanked by two leading figures from the medical community. The politician of the day quickly reels off the death figures from the past 24 hours before taking a series of soft questions from members of the media. What must not escape anyone’s attention in this daily ritual of perverse banality is the frequency with which the phrase “the war on coronavirus” is used. The present situation is presented to us like a physical combat, in which there is an identifiable “baddie” which we, the “goodie,” must vanquish. This is, of course, not that new. We are already engaged in two other fictitious conflicts: the war on drugs and the war on terror. But what we have to do is learn the lesson from those conflicts. The “exceptional” and supposedly “temporary but necessary” measures introduced to fight those wars have not gone away. We still have very strict anti-drug legislation, a hangover from the war on drugs. And our lives are still under intense surveillance from the state, a hallmark of the post-9/11 era.
Master-Slave as a prerequisite for the exception
We must ask the question “why does this happen?” Why are these wars never over? Why do we never go back to “the way things used to be?” The answer to that lies, partly at least, in Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic. Hegel posited in Phenomenology of Spirit that within the development of self-consciousness, there are two self-conscious beings that recognise one another and immediately engage in a struggle to the death. However, the winning side in the struggle cannot fully “kill” the defeated, for that would also “kill” the victor. The Master-Slave dialectic has been interpreted in many different ways, but in the realm of politics and political struggle, it can be used to explain why political identities are wholly dependent upon the existence of the opponent. For example, fascists cannot exist without the presence of a minority. Fascists don’t really want a racially homogenous polity; they just want to exert their supremacy. This is also why, for many people, Brexit will never fully be achieved. It will always have been “cheated” or “betrayed”, for if Brexit were actually to be realised, that Brexiteer identity would instantly vanish. To return to Hegel, the Master needs the Slave. Without the Slave, the Master is no longer the Master.
We can use this dialectic to explain the permanence of exception. When the state’s representatives say, “we will defeat coronavirus”, the virus becomes an externalised entity. It is the Hegelian Slave, from which the state and its occupants derive their Mastery. The state’s identity of the protector/the powerful/the benevolent is entirely contingent upon the virus itself. This was the case for Bush and Blair’s administrations at the height of the war on terror. The Taliban, Al-Qaeda etc. were needed by the state. The violent inner-city gangs of Los Angeles, Chicago etc. were needed by Reagan’s White House during the war on drugs. For the state to have its power, and for it to have a foundational justification for its current manifestation, it needs its Slave. What’s more, it is vital that the Slave is an intangible concept like “drugs” or “terror” or “virus” that cannot actually be defeated, unlike, say, the Wehrmacht.
The ethics of the blame game
Leo Strauss, the godfather of American neo-conservatism, took a similar view to the one presented above, though he did not arrive at this position from a Hegelian start. Straussian political theory advances the Platonist idea of the noble lie: a fable around which society can unite and pull together. He was deeply critical of the moral relativism and consumerism of mid-20th century America, and he longed for a day when his adopted home country would return to a more morally righteous and dignified (as he saw it) way of life. Some of Strauss’s students, including Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and Scooter Libby, went on to be key players in the Reagan and Bush Jr administrations. First drugs, then terror became the fables around which all Americans could unite.
It is here that we must return to the idea of the blame game that was floated at the start of this piece. The influence of Strauss’s ideas on American politics, and the devastating material effects they had on millions of people, should act as a warning to us all if we don’t criticise the powers that be during this crisis. It is not just the state that becomes the Master in the dialectical struggle for domination, but the unassuming compliant public does so too. Žižek’s concept of the ethical act is fundamental here. A truly ethical act is one that emerges from within the socio-symbolic order and, once announced, exposes its radical contingency.
It has already been floated that this government’s response to the pandemic was far too slow, that the herd immunity strategy was tantamount to eugenics and that cuts to the NHS are the reason there are so many deaths (and not, as the state would have us believe, people sunbathing in public parks). We know that many of these deaths were preventable (and there are, tragically, many more to come). We know that the NHS was woefully unprepared for a pandemic, and the government still did nothing. In sum, we know who to blame. By starting the blame game, we can interrupt the Master-Slave dialectic and call an end to these unending states of exception. The response to Rentoul’s plea for unity and servility must surely be, “but I must spread the blame, for it is my ethical duty!”
Stuart Bennett is an academic and researcher working at the University of Bath. He specialises in Marxian political economy, Lacanian ideology critique and Hegelian idealism.
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