A Shadow Biosphere: From The Province of the Cat
Hubris sinks an empire when that empire becomes a bully. All empires make the same mistakes for the same reasons. But what if that empire was imaginary, or at least existed in some shadow biosphere? My “extensive” research on Wikipedia tells me that
“A shadow biosphere is a hypothetical microbial biosphere of Earth that would use radically different biochemical and molecular processes from that of currently known life. Although life on Earth is relatively well studied, if a shadow biosphere exists it may still remain unnoticed, because the exploration of the microbial world targets primarily the biochemistry of the macro-organisms.”
Like most on the left of Scottish politics I am trying to come to terms with the unsavoury prospect of another four years, eight years (an infinity), of a right-wing Tory UK government led by Boris Bojo Johnson. It has been a difficult December, the shortening of the hours of light has seemed like a signal for the end of days, but the Solstice has been and gone and, however hard it is to detect right now, the light is slowly returning. That, reassuringly, is the process of nature. Bojo is, literally, a different matter altogether.
Professor Carol Cleland, a philosopher of science at the University of Colorado (Boulder), argues that “desert varnish”, the strange black substance that covers rocks in arid deserts, whose status as living or non-living has been debated since the time of Darwin, should be investigated as a potential candidate for a “shadow biosphere”. She proposes that “desert varnish” has a different DNA and genetic code from all other living organisms and cannot be traced, mainly because we have not been looking for it. Dominic Cummings and his crew have been spreading the political equivalent of “desert varnish” over public political discourse since the EU referendum.
I have come to the sad conclusion that the Tories, especially those operating in Scotland, our local “desert varnish”, also live in a “shadow biosphere”. They must have a different political DNA – political, social, cultural and emotional (and all the other things which make up consciousness) – otherwise why are they immune to the human processes of history, never mind of nature?
In his new book “Galileo’s Error” (published by Rider, 2019), Professor Philip Goff of Durham University argues that:
“Consciousness is located in the intrinsic nature of the physical world”.
So, I know that the Tories exist because I can see the depressing areas of blue on Scotland’s political map. However, nothing is as simple as it seems. The popular American philosopher Daniel Dennett maintains that consciousness is an illusion. He maintains our conscious life is no more real than the virtual realities conjured up by computer imagery. Taking consciousness to be real, says Dennett, is like taking the icons on your computer screen to be organic beings. Dennett’s claims about the development of modern culture are even more dismissive. His idea is that very little of what we call culture or history is deliberately directed. Dennett further asserts that the technological wonders of the modern world have little to do with people understanding how certain means will achieve certain ends. Rather the social world, just like the biological world, is shaped by the blind forces of natural selection, not intelligent design. The conclusion to this, for us back here on planet Scotland, is that Bojo and his pals are “natural” and that bellyaching about them is futile, that campaigning, being active in opposition to them, even voting, is futile. It certainly felt like it on Friday 13th, December 2020.
In Scotland there is a political desire, proven time and time again at the ballot box, to create a free, new country based on equality, justice and equal opportunity for all, no matter your race, gender or place of origin. In England, in the “shadow biosphere”, it seems to me, they are intent on creating a stratified prison.
This “new” Scotland must reject the enrichment of the few at the expense of the many. We do not need and cannot afford to live in a society in which there are those who give orders and there are those who obey. Bojo’s new, ugly elite, and the hi-tech companies and hedge funds which protect and sustain them, are determinedly class conscious, however they demand the right to retain that “privilege” for themselves. For the rest the rights of consciousness must be limited to a few controlled areas such as consumer choice or Freeview TV and then removed entirely. This means that there will “inevitably” be no trades union representation or human rights, certainly not in the private hi-tech industrial complex, or a cultural life other than what is fed you. Your representation, your class consciousness will be no more important than buying a smartphone or something else you may or may not need. The majority will be coerced into making irrational and enforced choices which are diametrically opposed to their self-interest. This is how we “got Brexit done”. This is why poor people vote Tory. The Tories crow that the “working class” have, at last, seen “reason”.
In Scotland we must strive to reverse this grim progression otherwise we will live in a brutal and brutalising society. Freedom and justice have to be at the heart of our new society, they have to be the fibre of our political desire, it has to be the DNA of an independent Scotland. The “shadow biosphere” of Bojo is not for us. In the Highlands, for too long, we have received the signals of our imperial masters and been told that this representation is our culture and history when in fact it is a corruption. The broadcasters and exemplifiers or this signalling, historically in the political sphere in the Highlands, are the Liberal Democrats with their venal passivity on social inequality, their endless apologies for exclusive landownership, their excruciating complicity with inherited privilege and their mindless hostility to constitutional change.
From my perspective, in trying to make sense out of this past election, I think as far as the North of England goes, the people there have been stripped of their historical industrial purpose – their world has been hollowed out and the service/financial economy, so heralded by Bojo and his cronies as the Saviour of the World, does not reach them, or if it does, it bleeds them dry. The financial elite – hedge funds etc – that Bojo represents send out the signals, through their tabloid press and other mediums, that there is be “other” – refugees, foreigners, poor etc – who are the real enemy, so the signal becomes the truth, but it has a cost and a price. This invented “other” has to be attacked by all “reasonable” people because it threatens the system to which there is “no alternative”. The cost is that of democracy as we have become used to it; and the price is the rigging of trade in the oxymoron of the “free market”. Your consciousness becomes no more important than what you are forced into buying, therefore a new flat screen TV represents your individual choice, and this is how your freedom is defined in the “shadow biosphere”. So voting is an extension of consuming something. What we are consuming is the oxygen of our own consciousness. This is how you build a virtual prison. It is a society made out of glass. It is diametrically opposed to both the latent and historical aspirations of the majority, counter to their material benefit and to their self-interest. But the signal is so strong it is accepted as the truth, just as, in the past, joining the British Army and wearing the royal tartan was seen as an honourable thing for a Highlander to do. The signal relays that there is no other truth available. So we vote Tory to “get Brexit done” or gas the Jews or kill Palestinians or bomb Syria or clear the glens or whatever the signal tells us.
There are many on the right of the political spectrum who believe that materialism requires them – and all of us, or what Aberdonian’s call “the lave” – to deny the existence of consciousness. These people are what Philip Goff call’s “illusionists”. They are adamant that our brains are machines and there is really no feeling, no pain, no joy, no sensory experience at all. So no one can suffer in any way. These illusionists sail off the edge of the world in the great Ship of Fools, crewed by Willie Rennie-like clones of the Liberal Democrats and other constitutional Flat Earthers, fuelled by dark money, dark matter and dark energy, all swilling about in the “shadow biosphere” where all the true aliens lurk, comforted no doubt by the “fuck you!” algorithm of Dominic Cummings, our true “illusionist” in chief.
As John Crace in The Guardian keeps reminding us Bojo believes he has a destiny – he wants to be “World King”. In this he is the opposite of King Lear, who gave his kingdom away. At the end of Shakespeare’s tragedy everybody is dead. King Lear was intended as a warning. Now, as we approach 2020, it feels like a prophecy. It feels like King Lear is wandering the streets of the de-industrialised northern towns of England. It breaks the heart.
Maybe Nicola Sturgeon is right, that the only way out of the 1707 Treaty of Union and the Acts that followed it and ratified it into our domestic law, is to follow the legal route? Maybe she is wrong? The gloomy arithmetic of 66,435,600 souls south of the Tweed and 5,254,800 north of it renders our current constitutional political reality as solid, to misappropriate John Keats, as if it were “writ on water.” In reality there is no constitution. Bojo’s new imagined and nostalgic Lear-like imperium is likewise “writ on water” but, make no mistake, he will use his new parliamentary majority to bully the Scots to his will and use the media to undermine our politics and our resistance.
It was Bojo who described the government of Theresa May as a “zombie government”, but the truth is that this new regime promises to unleash the real political zombies. The philosopher Descartes held that non-human animals are automata: their behaviour is wholly explicable in terms of physical mechanisms. But human behavior (he argued) could not be explained in that way. For Descartes what automata lacked was consciousness. Bojo’s new government, when it comes to dealing with Scotland, will be all about assumptions. The main assumption being that English law incorporates international law, in as much as the Treaty of Union was an international treaty between two states, and that English law now is, magically, British law. English votes for English laws. And Scottish votes… for what, exactly? Our current political situation is absurd.
At the end of his chilling novel “We” (published in 1924) the Russian novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin has his protagonist, D-503, say:
“It can’t be put off, because in the western quarters there is still chaos, roaring, corpses, animals, and, unfortunately, quite a lot of Numbers (people) who have betrayed reason. But on Fortieth Avenue, which runs crosstown, they’ve managed to build a temporary wall of high-voltage waves. And I hope we’ll win. More – I am certain we’ll win. Because reason has to win.”
What D-503 means by reason is the opposite of what we would call reason. The outside world of reality and normality is breaking into the city of One-State. The empire is crumbling, falling and soon it will be gone. Where will it go? Into the shadow biosphere? Or the dustbin of history? Where will the corpse of Britain go?
Ernst Schrödinger, one of the three joint winners of the Nobel prize for physics in 1931, said in an Observer interview:
“The material universe and consciousness are made out of the same stuff.”
So it must follow that political freedom and political consciousness “are made out of the same stuff.” To deny this is to invite “chaos, roaring, corpses” and, if you are a government, to dig your own grave. Which is what I observe Bojo’s regime doing.
In 2020, in Scotland, we have to carry on building our future. The alternative is the opposite of reason. We cannot be complacent. We cannot dig a hole for ourselves to be buried in. We cannot make that mistake.
©George Gunn 2019