The Spectacle of Forgetting
The current UK Prime Minister is an addict of spectacle. Like a lost child he is acting out the unfinished adventure of his boyhood. He will slavishly follow the cravings of his addiction, he can do no other, and he will communicate in the language of the spectacle, for it is the only one he understands.
Guy Debord, the founder of the Situationist International and the author of The Society of the Spectacle, who tragically killed himself in 1994, could have had Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson and his Bullingdon pals and the present UK government in mind when he wrote that
“Power organises our ignorance of what is about to happen, and immediately afterwards the forgetting, of whatever has nonetheless been understood.”
Like almost every sentence in The Society of the Spectacle this is best read very slowly, but like all the sentences in that prescient manifesto it hits home every time.
So bearing all that in mind, here is one thing no-one in Scotland should forget: this on-going parliamentary mess is one of the Tories own making. We must never forget this. Brexit is not a natural state of affairs or an inevitable historical process, as the Tories, with the help of the media, especially the BBC, would like us to believe.
By the time you read this the Westminster parliament will either have been, or about to be, suspended. In doing so Boris Johnson is steering the British state into uncharted waters. He has also fatally split his own party asunder and temporarily united the opposition. Very few political leaders can glory in such an achievement.
The picture promoted across the media by the Tories, the one of the Prime Minister tremulously wrestling with a huge specimen of Aberdonian beef, was apt: here was a circus rag been thrown to a real red bull. It was sheer spectacle. Here was Bojo acting out his part – the Prime Minister amongst the “commoners” of rural Aberdeenshire, “up there” to tell them some untruth about farming subsidy. The problem is that Bojo is not much of an actor. Bringing the action to the word and the movement to the meaning – which is at the heart of all acting – is beyond him. The other thing which is beyond him, and his venal administration, is the truth itself. The irony here is that every communication they send out is fiction and why no-one believes a word is that real fiction, the stuff of stories, requires the truth to be at its centre, otherwise no-one will believe it, and in fiction belief is everything.
Even with his own immediate history Boris Johnson is required to be a wrecker. It is not so much that he tries to re-write his personal history but that he is intent in destroying it and as a result contemporary events – such as the shenanigans in the House of Commons – retreat into a remote and fabulous realm of who said what to whom, of unverifiable stories that are no more than rumours and gossip, uncheckable statistics and untenable reasoning. So process becomes a spectacle when it does not suit your purpose.
What Boris Johnson’s government have been doing over the past few weeks is to manufacture an atmosphere in which everything false creates its own sour climate and reinforces itself upon the public consciousness by eliminating any possible reference to the truth, to what Debord called “the authentic”. Anything genuine which strays into this sour climate is reconstructed as quickly as possible to resemble the false: to fit the government’s narrative.
Mike Small, in The National and here on Bella, has characterised this new falsifying breed of English Tories as “Revolutionary Conservatism” and as I have suggested they are “revolutionary” only in their desire to destroy. And I will state it again, that Boris Johnson does resemble a lost child who is seeking to live out his unfinished adventures, those which were denied to him for one reason or another, which is why he always appears to me to be just five seconds away from boredom, and this, for his project, may prove to be a fatal flaw. It is one of Guy Debord’s most insightful maxims, that “Boredom is always counter-revolutionary. Always.”
Meanwhile back on Planet Money things are not good. According to those well known philanthropists and soothsayers – the economists at the accountancy firm KPMG – Britain will plunge into its first recession in a decade should the government quit the European Union without a deal. These are just the latest in a string of gloomy forecasts about the UK’s fortunes outside the EU’s free trade area. KPMG said that the knock-on effects to Britain’s trade and business confidence of a no-deal Brexit would lead to the economy shrinking by 1.5% next year. Consumer spending, which has provided between 60% and 80% of growth in the economy over the last three years, would also be severely dented.
The warning follows forecasts by the Bank of England and the Treasury’s independent forecasting unit, the Office for Budget Responsibility, which have alerted the government to the negative economic consequences of losing access to the EU single market and customs union overnight. The central bank and the OBR have predicted a recession in the wake of a no-deal Brexit. Does Boris Johnson and his government care about this? In a house of mirrors sort of way they do. They have calculated that people do not really care for the truth, that they want something else. So Bojo, the boy, gives them a spectacle. He is seen to be pulling on our behalf at the big red bull-beast. It is the spectacle of Boris standing up for “the people” against “the system”, even though he holds the people in contempt and he and his government in parliament are the system. He is defending “you” from the “others”, i.e. the EU, foreigners in general (the beast), even though he and his government are only looking after their own interests – this is the real beast – and the “other” is actually “you”. There has not been such a reactionary government in Westminster since the days of Castlereagh and Wellington.
The answer, of course, is obvious: independence. This will come, but not immediately. The suspension of the Westminster Parliament should be an opportunity. Nicola Sturgeon has, more or less, told her MP’s to go back to their constituencies and prepare for a General Election. Which is fair enough. Except there is another thing we should be doing.
In relation to the EU the prevailing myth of the Brexiteers is that Britain with a population of 67.5+ million is a “big boy” in European terms and that the mandarins in Brussels and Strasbourg will eventually have to take cognisance of this, especially the other “big boys” such as France, Germany and Italy. This, again, is a “retreat into a remote and fabulous realm”. The fact is that the UK represents around 10% of all EU trade and that there are 18 countries in the EU with populations of around 10 million or smaller – 20 if you include Gibraltar and the Ὰlund Islands.
Nicola Sturgeon must assume that no UK administration will co-operate with her in granting a Section 30 order to facilitate an independence referendum. So the imperative must be to internationalise the Scottish independence debate by going on a diplomatic tour of as many EU and Scandic countries as she can, and she has to tell them that on one hand her country will be a good European neighbour and on the other it has proven impossible to deal honourably or with integrity with Westminster as it presently is constituted and in the way it is going. Scotland, she should remind our neighbours, has always been historically an outward going European country and that we are alarmed at the increasing violent and narcissistic rhetoric of the UK government, and are dismayed at the deterioration of parliamentary behaviour and at the growing confusion of government purpose and of policy and of the impossibility in dealing with them constructively.
Scotland’s First Minister should gently remind the Europeans that it is in their interest to ensure that the desire for Scottish independence, as expressed democratically by the Scottish people, should be allowed to go smoothly and be internationally recognised and that it is in everyone’s interests to also ensure that Europe has a stable, wealthy and functioning democracy on its North Western edge. Further she should suggest to them that with Ireland to the West and Scotland to the North the instability that will most probably occur in England as the result of a no-deal Brexit can be contained. It would benefit the First Minister of Scotland to remind the EU that it is a union of solidarity among small nations and that Scotland stands firmly with Ireland in resolving her open border arrangements with the UK.
Whether Nicola Sturgeon, as First Minister of Scotland, will use the suspension of the Westminster Parliament to undertake such a diplomatic mission is open to question, doubtful even. What is not in doubt is that she believes in such a mission. My argument is that we should be undertaking it and that we should be making such overtures before independence, not after it. The grave danger for Scottish independence and for Scotland as a nation is in what will come that is not foreseen. This is also the risk of waiting and seeing. The unionists in the Labour Party and the Lib Dems in Scotland are already touring the media studios singing the same song that the prolonged mess of withdrawing form the EU will only be the precursor to a greater and more prolonged mess if and when Scotland secedes from the UK. This lie cannot go unchallenged.
In The Shock Doctrine Naomi Kline writes, “In the ideological crusade of neoliberalism what we have is ideology as shape-shifter, forever changing its name and switching identities.” That is what we are dealing with when we engage with Boris Johnson’s government. No matter how many “body blows” he receives, either in resignations from his cabinet or in losing votes in the house, he shape-shifts and assumes a new identity. However, as Alec Finlay has pointed out in the latest edition of Art North magazine, “Artists know that outlier models and unsanctioned interventions are what changes change.”
The decline in the status of democracy within the UK, which is what Brexit represents, will not only finish off the UK but it will also damage an emerging Scotland, if we let it. Boris Johnson and his spin doctors may delight in the moment when government is spectacle, so that we are bamboozled into forgetting just what it is all about in the first place and are shocked at the sensational nature of the day by day proceedings. It is well to remember then that history will show that it does not matter what finally happens to this Tory executive administration, but that it does matter when that coalition is built upon the hatred of a perceived common enemy, because the executive then becomes worse than the perception. We should, in whatever we do, however we deal with the shapeshifters and the serial spectacle forgetters of Westminster, keep close to us the words of Hamish Henderson, who towards the end of his First Elegy from The Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica, gives us this,
“…minding the great words of Glencoe’s
son, that we should not disfigure ourselves
with the villainy of hatred…”
That is what “changes change”, to recontextualise Alec Finlay. In these mad-dog end days of Brexit we must keep a sureness of purpose about us: onwards into the future, beyond the spectacle of forgetting, on to a time when our independence becomes our collective memory.