A longstanding debate in various branches of philosophy, and philosophy-adjacent subjects (like social psychology and sociology), aim to establish whether society is an expression of our consciousness, the concretisation of a rational structure ascertainable to those who look (when you look at the world rationally, the world looks rational – to paraphrase Hegel), or whether mind and perceptual modes are formed by the material conditions in which they finds themselves. This debate forms the idealism/materialism (former and latter positions respectively) debate that has gone on in some form since Antiquity.
While most agree that the mind-world relationship is probably mutually forming and mutually informing, the point of contention tends to centre around how to weight each side. While many who visit this website are probably familiar with the Marxist and Marxian, materialist, account, I thought it might be interesting to offer an overview of the Hegelian (note, not necessarily Hegel’s) model for understanding our contemporary, Corona-infected, world. In the course of this discussion, I hope it becomes apparent that the materialist and idealist accounts do not come apart with such a wide chasm as one might have previously thought.
Hegelians-proper (i.e. people who have actually read Hegel in any rigorous way, that is to say, NOT Zizek) argue that society is mind externally posited and reflected back to itself. It is both the current expression of inalienable, constitutive, species-essential, freedom, and (at the same time) how we, as a society, understand that species-identifying freedom. While Hegelianism has moved on from the writings of ol’ G.W.F. himself, this conception of what society is (as a metaphysical category) remains central.
If we accept the legitimacy of this model (and we’ll remain agnostic as to our judgement on this for the time being), what ought we make of English society and how it understands itself when reduced and clarified by the coronavirus? The citizens of England understand themselves as free, but how do they understand what it means to be free, as such?
England is currently acting in accordance with its normative type in a self-distilled self-parody, apparently alas taken by the virus’s provocation of a reactionary fever. Cursory glances at Facebook (which I’ve left for reasons about to be made apparent) and mainstream news outlets reveal a renewed ultra-passionate jingoism taking hold. This is more than unfortunate as, to take the above model as our analytical heuristic, it would suggest that England understands its own freedom, its own mode of being, in a fairly reactionary way.
I would like to suggest that there are two distinct reactionary ways in which England currently expresses this understanding of itself. The first is jingoistic English exceptionalism. The second is jingoistic submission to establishment signifiers.
- Jingoism as Expressed Via English Exceptionalism
Immediately prior to Covid-19 hitting the UK shores, or at least publicly doing so, the UK government actively did nothing to prepare. The Chinese government warned the UK (and everyone) about the dangers of coronavirus and the necessary measures that ought to be taken. Shortly afterwards, harrowing scenes from Italy started saturating the news cycle. Those practising in the medical establishment started sending urgent messages of apocalyptic forebodings, urging healthcare legislators to take measures now. These messages went broadly ignored in the UK which appeared to adopt a ‘well, it couldn’t happen to us’ attitude. Only after a few weeks of Covid-19 taking root and, indeed, a few lives, did the Health Secretary (Mr Matt Hancock MP) send out a tweet asking if anyone had any ideas on how to get develop capacity in the NHS or obtain some ventilators. It later emerged that the entire UK government missed an e-mail saying ‘hey, we’re gonna club together and buy a load of ventilators, they’ll be pretty cheap and available almost immediately – you in?’. England responded by not replying, then claimed, without embarrassment or a sense of humiliation (both of which would have been minimally appropriate), that they ‘hadn’t checked their e-mail that day’. Of course, the truth is probably closer to the fact that they assumed no-one would help them because they themselves wouldn’t be prepared to help anyone else. The way of interacting with the world is one which presupposes hostile competition over finite resources. It’s a zero-sum game in the mind of a Tory. There is no concept, no mental or perceptual model for collective action. England can go it alone. Bulldogs. Blitz Spirit. Two-Fingers-Up-To-The-World-I’m-Alright-Jack-Cough-Splutter-Get-Me-To-ICU.
So, there was no pre-hoc preparation. In media res, the government refused to bring in physical distancing measures. The Cheltenham Festival was allowed to go ahead, pubs and schools remained open, and the Prime Minister went around shaking hands with corona-riddled (‘corridled’) old people too infirm to tell him to go away – although, as it played out, this ended badly for Mr Johnson.
Eventually, the government broadcast a statement saying it was probably best for people to avoid habitually and unreflectively going to the pub. This advice was hedged and framed in so delicate a fashion that it was taken as something not quite as firm as a request. Indeed, Boris Johnson’s own father went on television that very evening to say he’d be damned if he was going to stay at home and not go out for a few pints at his local proprietary ale-shop, licking people along the way.
Controversially, schools remained open around 10 days past WHO recommendations, and the recommendations from the experts of other countries. Indeed, the only person who appeared to recommend that schools stay open was the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Whitty. Professor Whitty, in a lapse of prudential insight, used the phrase ‘herd immunity’ to describe his rationale. The clear and obvious implication of social-Darwinism forced the government to almost immediately contradict the Chief Medical Officer they were insisting they were taking the advice of (‘no ideology here!’), claiming herd immunity was NOT the policy being adopted. They then flat-out denied anyone had ever said this immediately prior to a torrent of footage being released of them repeatedly using this phrase. This choice was condemned by almost every other government both by word and by deed (almost every other government ordered school closures after a few cases of Covid-19). But, hey, Britain, singularly, knows best – rest of the world be damned.
- Jingoism as Expressed Via Whole-Hearted Support for The Establishment
Prince Charles ‘self-isolated’ upon his contraction of Covid-19 to Balmoral Castle – the largest estate in Deeside (around six miles from Ballater – a lovely town, but itself hardly a metropolis and already pretty isolated). This is hardly a resource at everyone’s disposal, and I suspect the care Charles received was far more focussed and concentrated, far more ‘not available to common folks’, than available to literally anyone save a few High Born. Boris Johnson contracted the virus shortly after boasting about shaking the hands of many an infected person and was admitted to hospital shortly after. England responded to the news that Boris Johnson – a known bigoted, homophobic, racist, proletariophobe, disdainer of the general public, threatener of journalists, serial adulterer, bastardizer of children, liar and overall twat – had been taken into hospital with genuine, heartfelt, wishes for a safe and speedy recovery with such vigour that it would’ve made a North Korean blush.
This was, of course, nothing – NOTHING – compared to how the country responded to a speech Big HM the Sequel broadcasted on the fifth of April; a mere couple of months after the country became afflicted with the Covid-19. The Queen played to the crowd, invoking reminiscence about the Second World War by uttering the line ‘We’ll Meet Again’ (jokes, she’ll not meet you ever – she literally has a palace and guards to prevent this from happening). This sent England into a nausea inducing flurry of flag-waving, bunting-shagging, WW2 song-singing stupor from which they have not yet recovered. One Facebook comment (from a person I have enormous amounts of respect for) unironically read ‘The Queen – that woman gets my vote every time’. I wanted to comment that the Queen doesn’t need, nor want, your vote. Such comments about the absurdity of an established, hereditary monarchy, are being shut down with claims that they are distasteful and socially divisive at a time when social unity is necessary. The language of fascism is being used, again unironically, alongside WW2-nostaliga to prop-up an absurd system that refuses to allow itself to be criticised. The sad thing is, England are acting like self-grassing, cops. They themselves have bought this line and are aggressively loyal in their implementation and execution of it. The establishment is to be revered. A reductive understanding of what it is to be British (English) is to be restated ad nauseam. A national identity based on a delusion of grandeur is to be forged. If we just believe in England and our own sense of superiority (as expressed by the superiority of the establishment) hard enough, we will beat the virus.
Perhaps more concerning is the public’s recent banging of pots and pans to declare publicly their support for the NHS, or #clapforcarers (as the trending twitter tag had it). This is, of course, not a problem in isolation – the NHS is a remarkable (socialist) institution – however, a problem arises in virtue of two considerations:
- Those clapping for the NHS are, statistically, the very same people who have voted time and again for governments who have progressively starved the NHS of resources. Part of the reason Covid-19 has ravaged Britain so horrifically is in virtue of the ‘efficiency savings’ brought in by governments since 2010 (really, beginning in design under Blair) have obliterated any surplus capacity, ‘slack’, the system relied upon to deal with spikes in demand (like those increasingly felt every winter). Thoughts and prayers are fantastic, but they replace neither necessary resources nor essential infrastructure.
- The clapping became gametized, then weaponized. Groups started recording the decibel level of applause in towns throughout the UK – the claim being that the louder a town clapped, the more appreciative that town was of the NHS. If this isn’t embarrassing enough, some towns were admonished for not clapping sufficiently loudly and were branded ‘unpatriotic’. One now must clap one’s hands bloody lest we be accused of being on the side of The Virus. This absurdity became dangerous shortly after this phenomenon swept the UK when #clapforcarers was appropriated by #clapforBoris. Suddenly, everyone who wanted to show their appreciation for the NHS had to decide to either not clap at all (and face social ostracism) or be seen to clap for Boris Johnson’s recovery. Of course, many people did the latter and those who support Boris Johnson used this as a means of strengthening the public narrative that the Great British Public fully supported and universally adored their Prime Minister. Suddenly, the clapping for the NHS was clapping for Britain. We are both clapping for carers and clapping for the Conservative Party without a sense of contradiction in virtue of a deep, collective, social amnesia. God Save the NHS, God Save the Queen, Land of Hope and Glory.
So, returning to Hegel. What is expressed in the behaviour and actions of the English during the Covid-19 pandemic? The answer can only be located in an arrested development and an historically undeveloped immaturity. The process by which society moves towards an improved knowledge of self has stagnated and regressed. Part of the explanation must reside somewhere in the overt exhumation and rebranding of Britain’s colonial past. This coheres pretty nicely with the Hegelian account; England’s colonial past is everywhere (buildings, mass media, literature) reflected back onto itself and there is no more generation of The New – when we look at the world rationally, the world looks back, racistly. Contemporary England is a society that consciously participates in a shameful past it ought to have left behind. A shameful non-existent past that reaffirms its exceptional sense of self that forms its consciousness in such a way as to make it confident that it can shrug-off a global and deadly pandemic. This inability to move on from a vision of itself that never existed and the reaffirmation of a semi-conscious, self-imposed, mauvaise fois which glorifies of an entirely hallucinated past permits the participation in a socially agreed upon lie, and it is a lie that excludes any possibility of emancipation.
While England is currently participating in a fascist self-expression and self-understanding, this is not to say that the English are ontologically and irredeemably fascist. Nor is it to say their social development will remain arrested forever. I hold out hope that an forceful counter-reaction will take hold. In England we have not spoken about what we mean when we talk about a ‘good society’, nor have we spoken about how to get to where we want to go from where we are. Perhaps with capitalism in free-fall, and with many people suddenly finding themselves with time, this will change. We have lived in a state of existential despair, externalised and made concrete, for too long – where do we go from here? This suddenly looks like a question we might soon be ready to ask.
By W. D. Sharkey