Britain’s Shock Doctrine
The campaigning for the general election, like the ongoing Brexit debacle of which it effectively a part of, while compelling for political commentators, is for many just another disorientating episode in a saga that seems never ending. A farce, a tragedy and an impenetrable art-house film combined. Like ‘Carry on Politics’ co-written by Franz Kafka and directed by David Lynch. Larger than life, cartoon characters hold power and bombard us with falsehoods. The sheer volume of absurdity, lunacy and embarrassment wears everyone down.
Whether Johnson wants a no deal Brexit or a poor deal Brexit, whether Trump really wants to build a border wall with Mexico, or buy Greenland are secondary to their main aim, which is basically to confuse and bemuse the majority of people. A new series of conjuring tricks to disguise their program of neo-liberal fundamentalism, added to the predictable dash of the old ‘divide and rule’ sleight of hand. “You can no longer expect people to act in their best interests, when they’re so disorientated they don’t know – or no longer care – what their best interests are”, human rights advocate Halina Bortnowska observed of her native Poland following the collapse of Soviet rule.
The UK and the USA are currently being exposed to a slow-dripping, daily feed of what Naomi Klein identified as ‘shock doctrine’. This commonly occurs when politicians systematically use public disorientation following collective shock (usually wars or terrorist attacks) to push through legislative changes that favour corporate agenda. Examples of this, from the intricately co-ordinated to the opportunistic can be found in the CIA-backed Chilean coup in 1973, through to the collapse of the Soviet Union and former Eastern Bloc and the devastation in Iraq.
Trump’s continual unhinged capers and seemingly eternal fiasco of Brexit in their own way provide just this kind of disorientation and shock. People can’t or won’t cope with the sheer volume of political upheaval and even if they do find out about one piecemeal element of the other things they pale in comparison “Ok it’s bad but it’s not Trump bad or Brexit bad”.
Now we face another third General election in just four and a half years, which could be viewed as a chance for public debate on many important issues, and a great example of participatory democracy. However, it has predictably involved little but sloganeering about Brexit and independence, almost none of which has been subject to any real degree of scrutiny by mainstream media who have already nailed their colours to the mast regarding both of those topics. Party political fanboys and girls will doubtlessly love the pretence of debate and the 24 hour soundbites that ensue, but the majority will be sticking their head under their pillows, trying to shut out the constant incoherent wall of noise, wondering when it will all end, like they were suffering their neighbour’s all-night party at 4AM.
I’m not suggesting that the entire shambles that Johnson and Trump preside over is a calculated step in some conspiratorial masterplan by some shadowy group of multinational companies and disaster capitalists acting as puppet masters. However the distraction tactics are deliberate and each bungled Brexit negotiation and extension, the constitutional minefield of proroguing parliament and now another election are proving another ideal diversionary tactic whether part of a grand scheme or not.
As Noam Chomsky has observed regarding Trump: “While the show is going on in public, in the background the wrecking crew is working, dismantling every aspect of the government that works for the benefit of the population from workers’ rights to environmental and consumer protection. To enrich and empower their constituency which is super wealth and corporate power”.
They are seen as mould-breaking mavericks but they are really just furthering the cause of unregulated capitalism that got us in the financial mess in the first place, edging further from democracy and closer to plutocracy
We know from recent reports such as Channel Four’s Dispatches that secret but official meetings have taken place between senior civil servants and representatives of US pharmaceutical firms on six occasions where the price the NHS pays for its drugs has been discussed, with US drug firms given direct access to British Trade officials. Clearly a huge illustrative example of how things would be done in a post-Brexit Johnson government. At any previous juncture this would have been headline news for a prolonged period and an ongoing topic of public conversation and prompt for protest. To a small degree it still is but it’s massively diluted by the despair and apathy wrought by the current situation.
In the UK in the past couple of years we have seen (or would have seen if not distracted) cuts to Child Tax Credit, Personal Independence Payments, Universal Credit and Housing Benefit and other working age benefits that will constitute a £37 billion reduction in spending on some of the poorest in society by 2021. In tandem with this the government closed the Child Poverty Unit. Set up in 1999, the unit was intended to abolish childhood poverty in 20 years. As that target became unachievable the government simply scrapped the notion of having a target and charities predict a 50 percent increase on those 1999 figures by next year.
One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to abolish the Department for Energy and Climate Change, the government department responsible for managing one of the greatest threats humanity has ever faced. The move was condemned by climate campaigners, including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, but largely received little scrutiny amid the ongoing Brexit negotiation pantomime.
The Amazon fire briefly caught some headlines in August but faded away much like the summer itself despite the fact that there were still 19, 925 fire outbreaks in the Brazilian sector of the Amazon rainforest in September. Other current global issues like Turkey’s ethnic cleansing of Kurds in Northern Syria do get some column inches and airtime but far less than they would without the ongoing domestic political machinations to exhaust us of concern for more universal topics and prevent more holistic thinking.
Unencumbered by the Brexit and Trump show, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, knee deep in austerity far more people would be questioning our political and economic structures and indeed our whole consumerist way of life. Of course, in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis there was the ‘occupy’ movement and there are other piecemeal protests and reforms now, usually portrayed as delusional cranks by a populist media who think preventing someone using a plastic straw in their McDonald’s coke as an act of zealotry. Thus the dominant ideology still projects the free market as the essence of freedom. This idea isn’t new but what is new is the glorification of this idea in the downturn. At the precise moment when free market theory has proven itself to be the philosophy of ruination and fraud populist free market movements are thriving in a manner the American political analyst Thomas Frank has described as “Amazing, unlikely and preposterous”.
Many of course still are adopting new ways of thinking and challenging the status quo but there is also a danger of just settling for the kind of veneer of comparative equitability that we had with the likes of Major, Blair and Cameron rather than meaningful change. The worst possible direction at the moment would of course be to continue to spiral headlong into the abyss of an unregulated capitalist dystopia but rewinding back to the supposedly simpler days before Trump and Brexit would not be a solution to this but merely a retreat down a path that would bring us back along the same route again. It still couldn’t be further away from the problem solving politics needed to address inequality, poverty, environmental damage and climate change.
It’s far from easy in this era of where the downright lies of Johnson and Trump are swallowed and regurgitated by mainstream and social media, but be informed and vigilant is the first barrier of defence against this sea of ignorance and deceit. To effect meaningful change in the long term requires a more co-ordinated approach and a mass movement but for the immediate future, every one of us who keeps informed, questions everything and looks for the facts beyond the soundbites, stays tuned in and focused is a performing a small but significant kind of revolutionary act in times like these where the fundamental aim of government is to turn people off meaningful political involvement.