The Spectacle of Forgetting

THE SPECTACLE OF FORGETTING: From The Province of the Cat by George Gunn.

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.

What can we in Scotland do about this?

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.

Comments (16)

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  1. Douglas Wilson says:

    I think the attitude of EU member States to indie Scotland has shifted significantly over the last few months and years…

    A good gauge is Spain, where an interview with Nicola Sturgeon was on the front page of El Pais last week, a newspaper very hostile to Scottish independence in 2014. It would have been unthinkable that Nicola Sturgeon or any leading SNP figure would have made the front page even a year or two ago, out of the question.

    I was checking out some figures at the weekend, and the annual UK contribution to the EU budget amounts to….

    …. 0.32% of GDP (in 2017) which works out at 112 euros per UK citizen!!!

    The amounts spent on No Deal planning (8 billion) and the Exit Bill (39 billion) already amount to something like 6 or 7 years membership fees…

    All of this to take the UK out of the richest and most successful trading block in the history of the world… and without counting the massive hit on the UK economy No Deal will bring in terms of economic recession, and of course, most importantly of all, the distress, worry and anxiety the UK govt has been piling on EU citizens in the UK (most especially) and UK citizens in the EU, and he fuel they are pouring onto the fire of racism and English nationalism…

    Our English friends have lost the plot – one in three of them at least – and there is no saving them from themselves.

    Time to man the lifeboats and row calmly and quietly for Nova Scotia… “Unionists” and “Nationalists” alike….

    It’s complete and absolute madness what we are witnessing…

  2. Michael says:

    Alun islands?

    1. Astragael says:

      Åland Islands

      1. Douglas Wilson says:

        The neighbours from hell….

        “…first it was the garden they let overgrow, then the daily shouting matches started, followed by the all night drunken parties and all kinds of strange comings-and-goings…and more recently, they tried to burn down the family home on two or three occasions…if it wasn’t for us, if it wasn’t for the vigilance of their long-suffering neighbours, the whole family would be barbecued by now…”

  3. John B Dick says:

    What we need is legiators that display the values of Integrity, Justice, Justice and Compassion,which it was said was what the people of Scotland required.

    It was a great joy for this old man to see his 13yo grandson slip through the crowd to read these words in situ.

  4. John B Dick says:

    What we need is legiators that display the values of Integrity, Wisdom, Justice and Compassion,which it was said was what the people of Scotland required.

    It was a great joy for this old man to see his 13yo grandson slip through the crowd to read these words in situ.

  5. Jo says:

    “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.”

    I sincerely hope it doesn’t come to pass. I think to embark on such a “mission” would be considered anything but diplomatic immediately ahead of a General Election. Indeed, I think it would be seen as a sign of arrogance and complacency. I realise that, daily, we’re being told that the SNP will sweep all before them in a GE. That said, I don’t trust polls. Anyone who assumes anything ahead of the real poll, in my view, is a fool.

    The idea that Nicola Sturgeon should use the time ahead of a GE to go on a Euro jaunt seems, to me anyway, a very bad one.

  6. Squigglypen says:

    Our English friends?..when did that happen?..did I blink….these are the people south of our land who have attacked Scotland for hundreds years and are prepared to lose Scotland to get what they want – and you want (with nice manners)….to man the lifeboats and row calmly away?I hear myself laugh……nah..won’t work…..have you forgotten their behaviour at the last Referendum?….gird up yer loins and dump them overboard….and sail away an independent nation..hurry up Nicola…
    Squigglypen
    PS: somebody said Scotland won’t get independence because we haven’t suffered…..don’t be nice..it’s the English you are dealing with..remember?

    1. Douglas Wilson says:

      Squigglypen, most Scots are neither “Unionist” nor “Nationalist”.

      Maybe something like 20% are real die-hard Unionists and the same again Nationalists, but my belief is that most Scots would define themselves on a Left/Right spectrum before a Nationalist/ Unionist one. Or at least would have done so…

      It is a pragmatic question now. Do you want to say in a Union which is doing so much damage to Scotland’s interests, which is seriously undermining our democracy, which has destroyed our international reputation and has already left us looking extremely foolish not to say downright mad in the eyes of the rest of the world?

      Surely a great number of those who voted to stay in the UK back in 2014 did so because the upheaval and risks were perceived to be sufficiently higher than the advantages and benefits independence would bring?…. That argument can no longer stand up to serious scrutiny.

      A 100 quid a year to trade with 500 million people and work, travel and live freely across the whole of Europe? And some people aren’t happy? It’s a bargain in my eyes…

      I’d gladly pay 100 quid a year just to avoid those nasty, depressing, very long queues where those poor souls bearing “Other Passports” stand and wait in Europe’s airports as EU passport holders skip merrily through in next to no time…

  7. Jenny Tizard says:

    Fabulous writing.
    ‘Like a lost child he is acting out the unfinished adventure of his boyhood’.
    Once you’ve read this you can only see Boris through this lens. ‘Brexit is not a natural state of affairs or an inevitable historical process’ Yes, that needs saying loud and clear.
    Thank you George and Bella

    1. Wul says:

      Yes, great writing. And accurate. The boy who dreamed of being (in his own words) “World King”.

      I was surprised at the time that more was not made of Boris’s admission that his favourite pass-time is constructing and painting buses from “old wooden crates” ( champagne crates?, cigar boxes?).

      “I make the bus and then I paint people inside the bus. The people are all happy on the bus”.

      Our PM has an emotional age of seven.

      1. Millsy says:

        On hearing him discuss his bus-construction hobby my first thought was ”This guy needs professional , psychiatric help !

  8. nottheonly1 says:

    “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.”

    A most perfect description of the difference between reactionary and procative actions. The latter lead to new opportunities, while the first always run around in circles.

  9. maxwell macleod says:

    Lovely writing George, but you work against yourself when you polemicise, if that’s a word or spend your energy debasing personalities for the sport of it when the material target is so big and slow moving anyway. These are the land mines of internet postings and their incessant explosions soon dull credibility. Your suggestion that the whole thing ( Brexit ) is entirely the creation of the Tories does seem to rather insult every one of the seventeen and a half million who voted for it. Many Brexiteers believed, rightly or wrongly, that The EU was a capitalist mechanism so that the free market couldn’t be hindered by democracy and to say that position was engineered by the Tories is remarkable. I find myself appalled at Boris Johnson and delighted that he has been tripped up by the Scottish Judges, but to dismiss him as an idiot verges on the, well, idiotic. I don’t think there is a politician in the chamber who could have rode his last question time with such skill in the face of such barracking. . It may have been arrogant and pretentious, but idiotic it was not.

    1. Dear Max, you say “Many Brexiteers believed, rightly or wrongly, that The EU was a capitalist mechanism so that the free market couldn’t be hindered by democracy”.

      I’m not sure i understand what that means? My impression was that the driving force of Brexit was immigration.

      1. maxwell macleod says:

        Yes I would agree, but bizarre though it may sound I was active in the 1975 referendum on the anti EU ( or EEC as it then was ) platform and it was very much, in our house anyhow, a left wing against international monopoly capitalism stance and I think there was, and is, still a residue of that kind of feeling amongst the older of the labour supporters. few of whom would have been swayed by anti immigration rhetoric I therefore find George’s thesis that it was all Tory led rather suspect. Great
        writing though

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