Current Affairs

The Black Hole at the Heart of Parliament


2. In Astronomy, the rarefied gaseous envelope of the sun and other stars. The sun’s corona is normally visible only during a total solar eclipse, when it is seen as an irregularly shaped pearly glow surrounding the darkened disc of the moon.

There’s a particular pained expression Boris Johnson makes that has fascinated me in recent months. It’s a face he makes when he’s determined to look serious, when circumstances seem to demand reverence and consideration rather than boisterous joshing, and it looks a little like a poorly proved loaf of bread, a packet of biscuits that’s been sitting in the cupboard too long, or, more obviously, a sad clown. This national health crisis has been both the culmination of his entire acting career as a particular kind of self-aware aristocrat, the well-to-do clumsy eccentric who knows how to have a bit of a laugh and loves a good civic project or two, and a strange kind of unravelling. It’s nothing quite as simple as a near death experience changing a man, or the Churchillian myth he has fashioned for himself coming together in a grand victory of anachronistic national belonging; the right man for the right time so to speak. What begins to become apparent rather, if we look carefully, is that behind the immaculately kept furniture and grand ostentation of the number 10 interior, underneath the lacquer of that table on which the Prime Minister is carefully propping himself, is another world. A world in which politics simply doesn’t take place. A world which, it might not be an exaggeration to say, doesn’t contain much of anything, and yet for some is the grand total of everything.

British politics has long been the practice of an anti-political world view. It’s a cliche much used by the right that London is some kind of metropolitan bubble disconnected from the rest of the country, and a fiction, but the truth is potentially far worse, and involves the kind of insular bureaucratic inner-group consciousness we might usually think the preserve of the other, those corrupt nations somewhere in the eastern fog that serve as the projection of every secret injustice we perpetuate. The enduring historical image in my mind during this crisis has not been of the second world war, or even the black death, but that of Chernobyl; an expansive disaster of almost unthinkable proportions exacerbated and allowed through the pavlovian response of a group of totemically arrogant paper-pushers. To make such a direct historical link might seem fatuous or simplistic, and it’s true that we cannot simply reduce the contingencies of the present to the certainties of the past, but I use this image to illustrate the sheer enormity of government failure, and more precisely a kind of depoliticising and systematic incompetence that’s widely agreed to underpin those events.

Because the scale of institutional failure here is difficult to overstate; it is difficult to think of another crisis or point in recent history in which every axis of the neoliberal economy has been so steeped in the waters of decay. The culmination of the Thatcherite project in which successive governments take another crack at hollowing out public services, each lining up to bash the pinata some more until presumably some sweets fall out somewhere down the line, has come to a head in a whirlwind of frantic PR babbling, in which successive Tory apparatchiks of varying disrepute try to convince us that we have won the battle, driven off the enemy even as the problems mount up around them. Each press conference simply seems more desperate, more empty of content, more out of step with the lived reality of people whose lives have now become overshadowed by the ballooning and sickening pall of premature mortality. It is as death more prominently than ever in recent days hangs over the land, that British politics turns steadfastly away and starts bleating about “British common sense” and “indomitable spirit”…

The spectacle has run away with itself, turned back on itself, torn itself to shreds and put itself back together again in the midst of the charade. Outsourcing, the economically baffling process New Labour became convinced was a “powerful public good” in the words of interminable Blair cultist John McTernan, has built on its legacy of corruption, failure and inefficiency with every step taken. The only explanation left as to why important state tasks are contracted out to disreputable companies is good old routine, we simply don’t know how else to do things anymore. The great promise of Johnson and Cummings was that they would shake up politics, they would do things differently; apparently, we weren’t getting the same old politicians that spent all their time huffing and puffing around the commons chamber asking for endless Brexit extensions. An empty promise as it turned out. Neoliberalism is still the name of the game, and a dash of Keynesian “generosity” doesn’t change matters, as it becomes apparent that public infrastructure is now nothing more than a carcass, partitioning everything to corporations seeded in anonymous office blocks with no real expertise in anything besides corporate politics and fraud seems to be the only thing left, and we will do it until we keel over of exhaustion.

The old canard of broken promises might be wheeled out now, but it seems to have no purchase here, not only have there been so many promises that they barely held any weight, but fulfilling promises ceased to be a concern. When we say “post-truth” we speak as if this is not only some kind of new development, but almost invariably without any kind of truth to speak of; what truth are we referring to, is it simply that of consistency? Is it the religious truth of conviction? Both are dismissed as mindless populism whenever they arise, or worse the telling symptoms of raving fanaticism. No, we mean a wholly inconsequential truth, a truth confined by the co-ordinates of politics-as-is. The theatre of the commons has recently delivered some telling displays of contained opposition, where, successful as they were, the Labour Party’s calls for consistency and truth have consistently stopped short of questioning the premise. Political opposition this is not. What is expected appears to be more of a perpetual list of corrections, a legal register of complaint. Excuse me, this doesn’t add up. Could you clarify this point please. The people want to know. Behind all of this, Capital remains the only game in town.

It remains to be seen whether there will be some kind of mass revolt or turning of opinion against the conservative government in the manner opinion shifted on Churchill after the war, indeed predictions of this kind remain a fools game in the flurry of nothingness and non-information being spewed forth from the groaning depths of our political machine. Rather than a “parliament of the people” what is on display here is the clumsy illusions of a government who never wanted to protect anyone, wasn’t particularly invested in the popular will beyond it’s own comfortable majority, and is at every step more interested in washing its hands, the empty sheen of endless ritual. Wash your hands, clap for carers, stay at home, stay alert, all just slogans to people who know that they won’t be made homeless, who can exist in the fantasy they construct.

It’s here in this fantasy that they reside, and its a fantasy empty of concern, where Brexit, or the lack of it, just meant a convenient vehicle for success, and poverty is just a concept. Despite the displays of chummy, backslapping jingoistic confidence, there is no solidarity here, there is only a yawning black maw into which all our hopes and dreams are gradually emptied as Tory MPs laugh at your concerns, open their mouths in mock horror, and stand to attention in an endlessly repeated minutes, ten minutes, ten hours silence to honour what, the cadaver of politics?

Of course, they have to be a bit more careful today. No longer can your friendly neighbourhood technocrat simply sit there and claim that a nuclear disaster simply cannot occur in the united kingdom. Unlike the Bolsonaros of the world, Johnson would never have been able to pretend that nothing was happening. Instead it is with the public outpouring of admiration that we are plied, a trust in queen and country, in fish and chips, common sense and the steadfastness of dear old blighty, the old nationalisms given new life. Even as socialists were jeered away and rejected out of hand for their ties to the past, the Blitz spirit returned, the old slogans wheeled out, the queen sat before us and delivered what seemed more like a simulation than usual for our monarchy, as decked out in pure, unadulterated post-feudal glitz as it may be.

All this crescendoed some weeks back now. People are getting tired of lockdown, it is said, whispers abound of people crowding the beaches, a government caught in the kind of tangled web of disarray it might not be able to escape, the “resilient” economy in tatters… Triumphant pronouncements of the end of neoliberalism should be resisted. Declaring the end is the perfect door through which neoliberalism re-enters our politics. Regardless, hasn’t it been running on empty for around 10 years now? It can go on for longer. Neither, it has to be stressed, is Capitalist Realism over, and to proclaim it over at every moment something happens is to flagrantly miss what makes it such a powerful phrase in the first place; it’s not that nothing happens, its that everything happens, but nothing changes. Left melancholy sets in when we stake our faith in everything and none of it works.

We are, however, at the mercy of history. One thing that we do tentatively seem to have seen the back of is the end of history. Certain pressure valves could no longer hold, and fissures erupted. This was true of Brexit, Trump, and now that we are being assailed by an inhuman entity, the storm of stammering justifications we receive in response. There is nothing currently for us in the centre besides a hideous mass. There is no centre, just an arc of matter in which we find ourselves, an indeterminate horizon somewhere under the spires of parliament into which everything is drawn. What lies beyond this dead anomaly, it remains impossible to say.

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