Tuesday 12 January 2021

The Pandemic Did Not Cause the Capitol Riot

Over-long, bloated, incoherent. If you're interested in a patchwork quilt of an essay peddling a tendentious thesis and littered with wrong observations, the latest from overrated right wing historian Niall Ferguson might just be up your street. Belabouring the point Trumpism should be seen as a virus, Ferguson suggests the body politic's four-year bout of The Donald and all his works might have conferred herd immunity against this sort of politics and, just possibly, normality is about to resume. Which, given the election of uber centrist Joe Biden, seems obvious for the most naive and impressionistic among us. Okay, we'll put that to one side for the moment and concentrate on the one-half of his argument given away in the title: "Pandemics have always bred political lunacy."

Skimming through the facile comparisons with plagues past (he's a historian, don't you know), we arrive at the meat of his argument. He writes, "Pandemics, remember, are associated with religious and political extremism. The fear of illness, mutual suspicion, quack theories, hypochondria, hyper-skepticism and general mental dislocation caused by social distancing, lockdowns and unemployment — taken together, these things tend to generate outlandish behavior." A peculiar contention applied to our Coronavirus-cratered times, because we can look right across the Western world and particularly several European nations blasted by the Covid blight and yet ... nothing. Even jolly old Britain, home too of political polarisation has not seen anything like the political violence that boiled over in the Capitol last week. Therefore Ferguson's thesis, that the pandemic is somehow responsible for an aborted, ham-fisted, and inchoate coup that was a few months in the making is on shaky ground. Even weaker is his claim violence associated with Black Lives Matter protests had the same root. Nothing to do with the extra judicial killing of George Floyd and the subsequent cop rampage across dozens of American towns and cities.

This is not accidental. Conservatism is a fundamentally dishonest enterprise. Its attempt, everywhere and always, is to pretend the minority interest of capital and the class it feeds is the universal interest. They preside over a system founded on antagonism but cannot acknowledge it openly. Instead, their pursuit of class war is at times consciously, at times unconsciously swathed in moralising against the poor, the (ostensibly) technocratic management of crisis, or in backward looking national projects. It's a collective act of sublimation, and it's the task of their intellectuals, like Ferguson, to wrap these ideas up in hocus pocus profundities. His plague thesis is partly about providing reassurance for a conservative-minded audience. Don't worry, these outbursts are the consequence of an external entity putting our society under pressure. Everything is otherwise tickety boo. Hence, like all conservatism, it's part distortion, misrecognition, and distraction. Addressing why BLM is a thing, why even Trumpism is a thing raises very worrying questions for the conservative mindset. Naturally, as a good rightwinger with a grift to protect, Ferguson skirts over them.

It's this "externality" thesis that allows his leap to the next proposition: the return of centrism. Assimilating the spread of political ideas to viral metaphors is boring and unoriginal, but it allows Ferguson to pad his essay out with a precis of when this has been accomplished in the past, and boosts his idea about how America is shaking off Trumpism and developing a strengthening immunity to future infection. If a keystroke could make it so. While recognising the possibility of a resurgent Trumpist movement, he believes the strength of the political centre stands restored. Evidence? The election of Biden, obviously. And movements within the Republican Party against Trumpism and, possibly, those who abetted its rise. Plus the narrow Democrat majority in the Senate should ensure sensible centrism holds. Deary me. Ferguson has provided a demonstration of why impressionism is best left to 19th century artists.

The grievances powering the Trump movement, its gaggle of bourgeois and petit bourgeois, the self-employed, the middle class and the lumpenised criminal elements, the social stuff of right wing populism and fascism haven't gone away. The world seems as mysterious and as threatening to them as always, with a state moving against its opponents and reinforcing its coup against the rightful winner of the presidential election. Worse, they imagine the pressure of immigration, and fear the dissolution of their privileges and senses of entitlement as socially liberal values advance and they're forced to acknowledge the existence of people who are black, hispanic, asian, queer and, yuck, proletarian. This resentment isn't going anywhere. Likewise, for the rising left who are at the sharp end of Trump's mismanagement of the pandemic and who, before, knew precarity, crap wages, frustrated aspirations, police violence, faced an at best indifferent, at worse hostile mainstream politics, and feel a fundamental unease with a system stacked against them as our people do here, are not disappearing either. Ferguson might think Biden "defeated" the left, but both the presidential election itself and the Senate run-offs in Georgia showed the absolute dependence of the Democrats on leftist mobilisation. There's little point pushing saccharine appeals for winning over Trumpists and loyal GOP voters when they can be outflanked each and every time by mobilising the considerably larger progressive base.

And so, Ferguson's nonsense reminds us of the only use for conservative intellectuals: for taking the temperature of what's swirling around their imaginary, and how they're trying to think their way through the moment. In this case, Ferguson is articulating bourgeois hopes that the movements of the extra parliamentary right and left are knackered. This means, despite everything, they're still ill-equipped to deal with American revanchism even as they make their moves to impeach Trump and prevent him from running again in 2024. Yet this ignorance, this blindness also shows they're unaware of the growing strength, the increasing confidence, and crucially the greater opportunities opening up for the left. Ferguson might think he's found reasons to hope, but his own ignorant musings show the left we have reasons to be optimistic too.

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Karl Greenall said...

It's interesting to note that on the day the House of Representatives debates Trump's impeachment, over here, shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds makes a speech that revives John McDonnell's Fiscal Credibility Rule, that would have institutionalised austerity in a possible Corbyn government, and commits New New Labour to the same in the future.
Comments over the pond about AOC and the Squad showing signs of tacking rightward means that on both sides of the Atlantic, the left will have much to contend with over the long term.
Interesting times indeed.

Calgacus said...

Comments over the pond about AOC and the Squad showing signs of tacking rightward

Such comments have been overstated to the points of absurdity

It is striking to pair it with the UK Fiscal Credibility Rule. The Squad is criticized for not using the leverage of Pelosi's re-election to the House Speaker, which they have enough numbers to prevent, to force a vote on Medicare for All etc.

But the critics I have seen completely ignore that the Squad actually did use its leverage, behind the scenes as AOC had said, and got a real victory- exemptions from the Paygo rule that institutionalizes austerity in the USA, the parallel to the UK rule. Was this enough, would it have been better for them to hold up the election? That is a matter of judgment; but it proves that criticism about them being co-opted is absurd.

Karl Greenall said...

That being the case, I for one, will be interested to see how Labour deliver the goods on the changes our society needs, and escape from giving the appearance of slavish devotion to the rotting corpse of economic orthodoxy.