Back to the front: the perversion in sending Britain back to work

Daniel Bristow on the perverse way in which the UK is being sent back to work, via Heidegger, Adorno and Zizek. 

The ruling classes will never fight harder than for our ‘freedom’ to serve them. The war metaphor of the ‘frontline’—wielded out so readily at the beginning of this crisis, and maintained and reinforced throughout—has been the aptest choice; the war to which it refers is the class war (amongst the war vocabulary, forgotten terms like those of ‘collaboration’ and ‘resistance’ take on an eerie hauntology). As Leo Cookman has highlighted, what’s going on with narrativisation here is delimiting precisely what is at stake, and how it’s at stake. Between heroism and ‘covidiocy’, for example, there is little room left for working people to experience themselves—or, more precisely, the image of themselves—as anything but discursively positioned. Whilst these narratives aim at eviscerating any sense of self-communion and -consistency whatsoever, they are also an attempt to mitigate class-consciousness, and its entirely reasonable demands (NHS workers have been gagged and penalised for speaking out on PPE shortages, for example, because it does not fit in with the jingoistic narrative of heroism). It puts a fresher spin on an old maxim: a more heavily divided class subject is all the easier to rule over. Under these conditions, one is only in relation to those whom they serve. The wealthcare system is as healthy as ever.

When the bourgeoisie—as a result of its political decadence and abstinence (its plodding outsourcing of the work of its governmental arm, which is the hallmark of the neoliberal project)—began to lose its coordinates as the crisis threw it into turmoil, it briefly enabled a (privileged) portion of the proletariat to plot their own coordinates anew, to seize the means of production of their own lives, outside of the delimitations of the labour market. This short reprieve is being wound down as control of the narrative is being wrested back, via the new governmental coronavirus messaging—‘Stay alert/Control the virus/Save lives’—however much the confusing consequences of its disinformation are being made out to be a result of simple incompetence. The knife-edge, on the bayonet, of anxiety is the most effective weapon to keep working people balanced on, and propelled onwards by. This reprieve was too much time for reflection, and this will have been a bitter realisation for the ruling classes, whose resentment will be deeply inwardly smarting, as has been exampled in the pathologising charges of ‘addiction’ to furlough, and the new ‘measures’ (or absence thereof, being announced; or rather, mooted, in a double-negative, or Hegelian negation of negation: ‘the choice isn’t yours. Rather, it isn’t ours!’). Whether or not you’ll be sent back to work forthwith (‘we’ll let your boss decide!’), you’ll sure as hell as worry about it now. The road back to occupation is preoccupation; the final furlong off of furlough existential angst.

In his great riposte against Martin Heidegger’s hifalutin Existentialism, The Jargon of Authenticity, Theodor Adorno states: ‘a certain person wrote that he was existentially secure; it took some reflection to realize that he meant he had been sufficiently taken care of in regard to his finances.’ What Heidegger had done in his philosophical propaedeutic was pre-emptively remove the properly material from its constitutive and dialectical place within the existential. Weirdly, this governmental volte-face is martialling the very reverse of this: removing the existential (threat) from the material (conditions): what greater demonstration of Thatcherite individualism can there be than the slogan ‘control the virus’? Not only fate, but a fatal disease must be taken into your own hands!

Whilst they’re busy selling the working class this myth from the comfort of self-isolation (and not needing to care one way or the other whether it’s being bought or not), returns to vectoral circulation—within ‘a sub-layer of life, the undead, stupidly repetitive, pre-sexual life of viruses’, as Slavoj Žižek has described it in Pandemic!—will beckon a second coming. Indeed, it is on this level, this sub-layer, of life that something simply cannot be analysed; as Jacques Lacan once remarked: ‘there’s a lot psychoanalysis can do, but it’s powerless against stupidity.’ As coordinated and insidious as the new messaging, ‘measures’, and (dis)easing of lockdown may well be; like the virus itself, it all remains intensely stupid.

[Originally published: 11 May 2020. N.B. The decision taken and set out by Rishi Sunak on 12 May to extend the furlough scheme until October 2020—after initially floating a policy of economic attrition, through which to wind it down—was one hard-won by the volley of opposition to the combination of the mixed sloganeering and the precarities to which it subjected diverse swathes of the population. Led by the unions, the opposition should now ensure that the government does not rest on the laurels of its defeat.]

Daniel Bristow is co-editor of Everyday Analysis.

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