. Making It Count: Resisting the Authority of Ignorance | Ceasefire Magazine

Ideas | Making It Count: Resisting the Authority of Ignorance

We are governed by pathological liars, buffoons, and brutish aristocrats, yet they keep getting away with it. Just what will it take to make the truth count and hold them accountable? Asks Sita Balani.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Wednesday, June 10, 2020 15:21 - 3 Comments

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(Credit: Willie Gevertz)

 [It’s] utterly absurd and wrong that you can read out on air a tweet coming in from one of your readers which calls the prime minister a liar. I think it is amazing you can do that.

Stanley Johnson

Just as no misconduct on the part of a father can free his children from obedience to the fifth commandment (to honour one’s father and mother), so no misgovernment on the part of a King can release his subjects from their allegiance.

James I, Basilikon Doron

There is an anti-elitist piety, often expressed by the academic or media branch of the same broad elite, that refuses to accept the specialness of rulers.

David Goodhart

Living in the UK in the time of Covid-19 means living in a world in which representation exercises brutal dominion over reality. If propaganda is usually laced into the fabric of everyday life, woven through its textures, sewn into speech, now it feels like a heavy cloth laid over reality as we stumble in the dark beneath. Claustrophobic, we sleep too much or we don’t sleep at all; words of prayer, long dormant, form on our lips; we wait and wait for the bread to prove and then forget to bake it; our dreams, achingly vivid, full of water and touch and terror, linger in the late morning sun.

Even for many with the resources to (self-)isolate, death shadows the edges of our vision. Though there has been much talk of the psychological impact of the lockdown, we’ve seen little discussion of the psychological effect of the death toll. Watching the daily count grow (103, 209, 563, 1019…) and knowing that it could have been otherwise weighs heavy, slicker than shame, more potent than guilt. The time lag between infection and sickness, between sickness and hospitalisation, between hospitalisation and death, produces a novel form of dread, an embodied and insuppressible knowledge. We are quickly learning, however, that knowledge alone is not power.

Knowing that people are going to die unless something is done to prevent their deaths is not the same as being able to stop it. The psychological effects of being governed by pathological liars, buffoons, and brutish aristocrats might be just as significant as those produced by enforced isolation. That their governance, in its callousness and arrogance, appears to be accepted by the majority adds a sticky layer to the dread. What will it take to tear the cloth? What will it take to make the truth count? We can read papers on epidemiology, we can make spreadsheets and graphs, but we cannot make the evidence matter. That we are free to speak does not mean we can communicate. The emotional impact of being able to shout and scream and rant, to cajole and beg and reason, to consume and produce meticulous evidence online, all to no effect, may be as debilitating as our loneliness.

As governments around the world announced lockdowns, as borders began to shut, as the death toll rose in Europe, the UK government continued to make light of the virus: it was just the flu, wash your hands, take it on the chin. When a lockdown was finally announced — looser than elsewhere, with less financial support, and plenty of loopholes exploitable by unscrupulous employers — it was too little, too late. With no sign of an effective system to suppress or control infection rates, we wondered whether this disaster was the result of incompetence or malice? Were they trying to kill us or simply happy to watch us die?

In the end, hubris has emerged as the more viable answer, for it is the myth of British exceptionalism that fertilises the soil from which both malice and incompetence grow. Britain’s nineteenth century victory in the ‘game’ of competitive colonialism has deformed the national political culture along the lines of a particular delusion of grandeur, as well as a longstanding belief that politics is mere sport. The USA’s similar handling of the crisis suggests that imperialism deforms the political capacities of the supposed victors as well as destroys the lives of their victims.

The lurid spectacle of Trump’s press conferences — in which he berates journalists and advises the American people to inject bleach into their veins — has rightly been the subject of global condemnation. But the difference between Trump’s surreal, late-night-shopping-channel sleaze and Johnson’s bluster is not one of degree but of style. When Johnson fears the bluster won’t work, he simply disappears. The daily press conferences are given by any number of Tory ministers, many relatively unknown until recently, and various public health official and scientific advisers, whose lies are far more shocking than those told by the politicians. Across the board, these briefings are an exercise in dissimulation executed with all the cunning of a spoilt child. They know we know they are lying. But with no mechanism to hold them to account, the lies simply don’t matter.

The media could make this spectacle a daily reckoning, but in the absence of any actual desire to seek the truth, their presence simply offers a simulacrum of democratic process. When a journalist ventures a more committed line of questioning — why do we have the highest death rate in Europe?, for example — the government’s response is not only evasive but wounded. They are doing their best. If Joe Public can’t keep himself alive, why should they be held responsible? 

This open contempt for the public is not new — it was there when Jacob Rees-Mogg claimed that those who lost their lives in the Grenfell fire lacked common sense; it was there when Boris Johnson hid in a fridge to avoid public scrutiny; it was there when Stanley Johnson, the Prime Minister’s father, referred to the public as illiterate. But it is at its most insidious when even hypocrisy, the accountability of the weak, no longer holds any truck. It should have come as no surprise to see the government assert that the chosen few, including Cummings, are above the law. Conservatism of all stripes is, in the end, a defence of inequality. While neoliberalism rationalised inequality through meritocracy — and could therefore more easily retain the rhetoric of liberal democracy — Johnsonism is a bolder, more capricious assertion of social hierarchy: in place of aspiration, private property, and individual success, it offers merely a bullish defence of entitlement.

Foremost concerned with Johnson’s own, almost monarchical, entitlement to govern, the white entitlement of England’s beleaguered natives supplies the justificatory rationale. Of course, the most profound and effective mechanism we have devised to defend social hierarchy is racism. Though racism might begin by differentiation — by valuing some lives at the expense of others — it opens the door for the devaluation of all human life at the hands of the powerful. In the coronavirus crisis, we can see that the explicit assertion of ruling class impunity is made possible by the longstanding disregard for the lives of black and brown people.

Despite this grim situation, many on the left have been quick to conjure a utopian future. Think pieces about the post-pandemic world proliferate — a Green New Deal, the resurgence of the unions, a four-day week, a new social contract, an end to the family — as though revolutionary change is inevitable. We need to imagine a better future, of course, but the rapid reach for box-fresh solutions is its own kind of hubris. As Les Back notes, ‘Hopeful possibility and action can be sustained without necessarily being hostage to the belief that everything is going to improve.’

(Credit: Reuters)

The rush towards a false dawn is a symptom of our inability to live with the pandemic, to live within its warped temporality. Arundhati Roy’s concept of the pandemic as a portal has been taken up, but it may take a matter of years not months before we reach the other side. In her original piece, the metaphor of the portal is one that carries as much foreboding as it does hope: we may well drag the ‘carcasses of our prejudice’ along on our backs; they may be given new and destructive life in the process. There are no guarantees. What at first appeared to be a holding space between one world and the next may be a much longer interregnum; it may not be an interregnum at all. We must attend to the politics of the portal; we must learn to be present here, now.

While there is little cause for optimism, there may be reason to hope. As the crisis began to bite, local support networks sprang up like mushrooms. The initial groups — started by anarchists borrowing from Pyotr Kropotkin’s conception of mutual aid — did not need the British public to commit to anarchism in order to thrive. Within hours, there were tens of thousands of people joining WhatApp groups with their neighbours; within days, there were close to a million. Despite the inconsistent political character of these groups (with a ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ tendency rivalling the initial left wing impulse) this level of spontaneous organisation perturbed the government, who increasingly see the public as a kind of market-competitor, as well an unruly object, in the business of social control. The government quickly set up their own (predictably) app-based alternative — NHS Volunteer Responders — to suture some of the gaping wounds created by austerity and to undermine the mutual aid network. Over 750,000 signed up, but a month later, only 75,000 tasks had been logged. The organisation was essentially a website, a digital sign-up sheet for nothing. The mutual aid network, on the other hand, continues to bed in, growing deeper roots, creating new pathways for sociality, hyper-localised yet everywhere.

The use of the NHS branding for Johnson’s phantom army of volunteers is worth pausing at. The refrain that we must act to ‘Protect the NHS’ has been a clear attempt to capitalise on, and control, the collective loyalty to our nationalised healthcare. But to protect the NHS rather than the health of the people cleaves the health service from its purpose. Boris Johnson can applaud cuts to the health service, and then applaud the health service itself, because those three magical letters have become a fetish object. That the NHS was not ‘overwhelmed’ is the result of an unspoken, silent system of triage, which left people to die at home or on the regular ward down the hall from the ICU. But healthcare workers, despite strict orders to keep silent, continue to speak out about the lack of PPE, the staffing shortages, the ghost wards of the Nightingale hospitals. Every healthcare worker who refuses to endorse the ‘Clap for Carers’ is roundly attacked on social media, but their insistence pierces the facade.

The displacement of reality by VR-bunting and nationalist bluster, by shiny blue apps and astroturfed VE Day street parties, depends on ignorance. It is telling that David Goodhart’s defence of the ‘specialness’ of rulers proclaimed that ‘the combination of mass higher education and social media threatens to make society ungovernable’. Goodhart may be misguided here about the revolutionary power of social media, but the civil servant who tweeted “can you imagine having to work with these truth twisters?” demonstrated some unexpected possibilities.

Goodhart may also be mistaken as to the power of Higher Education in its current, commodified form, but he inadvertently exposes the ways in which authoritarianism depends on ignorance. Ignorance here is no accident, no mere absence of knowledge, but a quality ruthlessly, shamelessly cultivated. We might think of ignorance as an authoritarian epistemology — one dismissive of tested knowledge, one that shrugs off openness and debate, that treats all challenge or critique as treason. Ignorance is the product of the elites presented as the authentic sensibility of the working class. Ignorance is powerful, but not omnipotent. We ought to take up Goodhart’s challenge. We must make ourselves ungovernable, by whatever means necessary.

We have been in training to live in their world. They have been training us. But we have also been teaching each other how to live against their world — how to live in defiance of it, to outsmart it, outrun it, out-love it. We must find a way to cultivate these counter-pedagogies, to reach beyond the logic of the moment. When workers refuse to dance to nationalism’s tune, and insist on a reality beyond the authoritarian spectacle, we see the possibility of turning the government’s discourse inside out, exposing the rot. When we contribute to the funeral costs of a stranger, we tell someone, somewhere, that they do not face their loss alone. In the voices of the dead, the dying, the grieved, in the actions of the carers and the cared for, we can find a kind of hope – not an optimism but the commitment to truth needed to force a confrontation with reality.

Sita Balani is a lecturer in contemporary literature and culture at King's College London. In her research and teaching, she explores the relationship between imperialism and identity in contemporary Britain. Her work has appeared in Vice, Feminist Review, Identity Theory, Open Democracy, Tribune and the Verso blog.

3 Comments

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Gerard
Jun 11, 2020 8:49

Lovely to read such an accurate and illuminating appraisal of current life! Thank you 🙂

Laura
Jun 12, 2020 12:30

Best thing I’ve read in ages – it is absolutely this government rather than lockdown or even the loss of loved ones that is causing the most anguish. Ungovernable you say totally ready for that.

Ian
Jun 24, 2020 11:24

I don’t understand how there is a step change in the perception of the honesty of our politicians, when we had a minimum 700,000 deaths in Iraq based on lies propped up by uncorroborated intelligence tortured out of people. Shouldn’t we have already been feeling this way? Why is that Alastair Campbell can be invited into the TV to talk about what liars Boris and co are?

Why have is it decided that this is a uniquely a British/American problem, and pointed to imperialism as the reason, when countries such as France assert their hold over their former possessions far more stridently than the UK does. Doesn’t this indicate that “British Exceptionalism” is in the eye of the Anglophobia critic?

Why is it stated that Boris is just like Trump, illiberal, and committed to austerity and inequality, when in actual fact he perhaps the most liberal conservative leader there has been. One whose stated commitment to levelling up the country has conservative commentators worrying over his spending plans, wondering aloud if he could even be called conservative.

Boris by most measures would appear to have made a mess of COVID. But when a country such as Sweden can make the same mistakes, why are so comfortable making this about something peculiar to Britain or the Anglophone world?

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