The ‘Blitz spirit’
Are we ‘all in it together’? Paul Demarty investigates
The Covid-19 outbreak is accompanied - in this country and many others - by the conflict of two distinct kinds of rhetoric.
Dominant is the theme of national togetherness in the face of adversity. In Britain, this is a register that comes naturally to the national voice, thanks to our morbid obsession with the ‘spirit of the Blitz’. The impassive face of Winston Churchill, offering us nothing but blood, sweat and tears, looms large in our mythology - a kind of consolation prize for the loss of empire and global hegemony. The British stood firm against Nazi tyranny, so we tell ourselves, and by the vast, collective effort spanning all classes - from George VI of The king’s speech, through the plucky code-breakers of Enigma and The imitation game, down to the sailors of Dunkirk.
Such is the tenor of the times. We are all in it together - aren’t we? The crown prince, the prime minister and other notables have fallen prey to the virus (not yet severely), showing that it is no respecter of station. (It may be that the royal and bourgeois-political routine of global glad-handing puts them at a higher risk than ordinary folk, just as, in the American civil war, the distinctive uniforms of senior officers and the new generation of long-range rifles made the per capita death rate among generals far higher than among privates.) The elites, for their part, are doing their bit (aren’t they?), with eye-catching sums dedicated to supporting workers, as the economy grinds to a shuddering halt. The smirk has disappeared from Boris Johnson’s face, as he tries to reshape it into a Churchillian crag.
But it is not all top-down - coordinated rounds of applause for the national health service and the like are at least semi-spontaneous, and the spirit of the Blitz is as much popular culture as it is elite self-mythologisation (hence the successful films we mentioned above). The multiplication of mutual-aid groups, together with the remobilisation of pre-existing charitable initiatives on the part of NGOs, churches and other civil society groups, testify to that as well. The important thing is to do your bit. Stay indoors. Donate to food banks. Do shopping for the elderly.
This is hardly the only occasion in recent history where this ‘structure of feeling’, as Raymond Williams used to put it, is mobilised. As comparisons - increasingly ominous - with the great financial crisis of 2008 multiply, it is worth remembering that the word ‘austerity’ was alighted upon in the 2010s for precisely its wartime overtones. Then, too, we were all in it together (weren’t we?). In more overtly chauvinistic terms, it animated much Brexiteer sentiment; the pronouncements of economic disaster from the other side looked, from this ideological vantage point, like appeasement; hardship was to be expected, and would be worth it for a higher goal.
But the mention of appeasement brings us neatly to the second kind of rhetoric, which is the monstering of people seen not to ‘do their bit’. The enumeration of villains is ever wider. Panic-buyers are blamed for shortages. The thousands who flocked to London’s public parks to enjoy the sunshine, in contradiction to advice to observe social distancing, were declared a “disgrace” by the London Metro, and condemned in similar terms by many others. There is no scapegoat like a low-level thug in the British imagination, however; so Covid-19 gives us a new successor to the lineage of happy-slappers, scooter-mounted thieves and so forth, in the form of people deliberately coughing on others. The usual rituals are observed: tabloid editors use words like ‘evil’, and police use words like ‘zero tolerance’. This effort gains wider success than previous ones, since we are all so very worked up about a global disaster that affects all of us, and so less likely to ask sceptical questions about how widespread this nihilistic violence actually is.
Between the two, of course, are those more pragmatic criminals who profit from the chaos, ranging from those who burgle toilet paper from supermarkets for resale, to opportunistic internet fraudsters - the great prophylactic against online scams being turning to the person at the next desk and asking, ‘Does this look right to you?’ and thus not available to many new thousands of remote workers. Some have even noticed the link back to wartime, the part of that heroic era largely omitted from our mythmaking (excepting Dad’s army’s profiteering private, Joe Walker). Duncan Campbell reminded readers of The Guardian of the many criminals who thrived in the 1940s:
While the traditional picture of wartime Britain is of a nation pulling steadfastly together, in fact the crime rate rose by 57% and everything from black-market racketeering and looting of bombed premises to the forging of ration cards, and even murder disguised as enemy action, was taking place.1
Yet it is not merely a matter of tabloid monstering of plebeian criminal elements. Charles Windsor may attract sympathy for his illness, but his eerily well-timed flight from the capital to Balmoral offers a rather sour note, that has not gone unremarked in the wider culture. Attention has also gathered around Jeff Bezos, the Amazon tycoon, who smartly sold off $3.4 billion of Amazon stock shortly before the coronavirus began to batter the stock markets. Nicely done ... Private companies offering - oh so generously - to rent their beds to the NHS for millions of pounds have also attracted popular ire.
When you read an article in a Marxist periodical that begins by posing two sharply divergent, apparently contradictory phenomena against each other, it is surely inevitable that it will turn out that they are secretly linked together. So it is in this case; and indeed one hardly has to be a Marxist to see as much - the relationship between a society’s self-presentation of the good life and its scapegoats is familiar to anthropologists and, indeed, artists at least as far back as Sophocles. We must face the contradiction: we are all in it together; we are not all in it together.
The contradiction is at the level of ideology: that is, of ‘structures of feeling’ - the spontaneous forms of self-understanding that obtain in societies under particular conditions. We have one ideology of martial self-sacrifice and gritty honour; and another of the fallen condition of humanity, and our inherent tendency to do each other down. (It is no surprise that so much hatred attaches to those who use coughing as a terror-weapon - for it is so pointless and nihilistic, and thus most clearly articulates this fear of intrinsic human sinfulness.) They both occupy, rather uneasily, the same space - which is, in part, the evidence of our eyes, of an advanced capitalist society pushed far outside its comfort zone into a kind of jerry-built Kriegssozialismus, accompanied by intense regulation of ordinary social life.
But it is also - more fundamentally - a form of society where we are not all in it together, if by ‘it’ we mean the danger of second-order effects of coronavirus. Sure, the infection itself can kill indiscriminately with regard to social class, if not to age, immune strength and the like. Few enough people were made homeless by the flu, however; but the economic devastation that has followed from this pandemic will do as much to very many. Not among them, we expect, is Jeff Bezos - surely $3.4 billion is enough money to procure a four-pack of Andrex quilted velvet - or bonnie prince Charlie in Balmoral.
To believe that we are all in it together thus entails, inevitably, a kind of cognitive dissonance. People do believe it, because in part it is true: frontline health workers living up to their vocations in dreadful conditions, under-equipped and furloughed to the level of 25% due to suspected cases of Covid-19 infection, set the standard for real, and it is only because it is not just a job that they can do. Examples like that are not inspiring at the level of TED-talk cliché, but at a more fundamental one: they show that solidarity is a practical concern, not some kind of hobby of charity-mongers. Most people do their best to do right, in a naive way, so inspired.
The ultimate practical import of solidarity, however, is not its ordinariness - for it is not ordinary in a society based fundamentally on the pursuit of profit, but ordinarily subversive. Emergency conditions give rise to a temporary inversion of capitalist values, without wholly suspending capitalist incentives. Spivs and profiteers must appear; and, however exaggerated the problem, so must people who exploit the panic for morbid amusement, like the coughers - ‘to see the world burn’. If the flowering of solidarity is a comfort to broad masses, then the appearance of its opposite cannot fail to generate fear and hatred.
At the level of practical politics, this ideological dynamic is unpredictable. Those on the left of a rather hopeful bent will recall to mind that Churchill, the hero, of the craggy face and the blood, sweat and tears (and also the ultra-imperialist, the murderer of strikers, the colonial-racist and anti-Semite ... ), was defeated in the 1945 general election. That was because a return to the 1930s was politically unacceptable after the sacrifices of the war years, still raw in recent memory (indeed, still ongoing, in the form of rationing and the devastation of bombed cities).
That may be over-optimistic. The very form of the scapegoating we have discussed drifts rightwards; coercive action against speculators and spivs is the easiest ‘left’ gesture for the far right to make. ‘We’re all in it together’ begs the question - who are we, exactly? We know that some unknown number of young thugs are not ‘us’; we know, meanwhile, that many politicians over the world are keen to paint people out of their particular ‘us’ quite arbitrarily. (Donald Trump leans on the federal agencies under his control to blame China for the virus at every opportunity, for one example among very, very many.)
What makes the difference is a powerful pole of attraction leftwards: then ‘we’, perhaps, are the proletariat and its allies, determined to do away with scapegoating forever, by being tough on the causes of scapegoating: the gap, already mentioned, between the rosy self-presentation of class society as inevitable and just, and the callous reality. Here we have a truly tragic coincidence, as we await the coronation of Keir Starmer as Labour leader; we might, in this country, have built something serviceable in the last five years, had we not been fatally wedded to short-termism and opportunism.
As it is, we may be starting almost from scratch; the field is open for the right to spread chauvinist poison.