Mike Ashley (Photo courtesy Johnvedwards) CC BY-SA 3.0
Boris Johnson (Photo: Ben Shread OGL)
A hospital parking meter. Nursing Times 21-9-2017
Mark Drakeford (Welsh Assembly) CC BY 2.0,
Vaughan Gething (Welsh Assembly) AM, CC BY 2.0,
We are not living in “unprecedented times”, however many times the phrase is used. Had we learnt the lessons of the immediate past around the world as the World Health Organisation did, the Covid-19 outbreak in the “United” Kingdom would have been contained and reduced far sooner. Right now, as well as taking immediate action, we need to ensure lessons are learned for the future. It’s time to identify those to blame, and to effectively record what they did wrong, what they failed to do right, and why.
We are not living in “unprecedented times” that demand the silence of ordinary people and of opposition politicians in the name of “pulling together”. If you’ve ever watched an effective sports team, what you’ve seen is a vast amount of internal conflict and competition harnessed for a cooperative cause, often involving star players and managers being brutally sidelined because they thought they were bigger than the cause itself.
We are not living in “unprecedented times” that legitimate the forgetting of mistakes, cowardice, greed and identifiable evil that led us here. As well as working together to help each other and for our societies to survive, we have a social duty to remember, and to remember well. That means we have a further duty to use what we remember: both immediately in our response and in the way that we shape our collective futures.
What does this mean in practice?
Over the last few days anyone visiting media or social media websites, or even consuming “legacy media” such as the state broadcaster or ordinarily right-wing newspapers, will have been struck by the insistent repetition of the claim that “we will not forget”.
It’s been used to refer to the biggest company owners being stingy, brutal and mean in their responses to the Covid-19 Pandemic.
It’s been used in reference to those who cut the NHS over years and decades, who aided and abetted the destruction of the welfare system, and who bullied the poor over decades because there thought there would never be consequences. And to profiteers who’ve taken advantage of desperate needs – real and perceived – for medical supplies, toilet rolls and remote places to escape the outbreak.
It’s been used for those who ran to their second and third homes in poorer places to isolate in luxury whilst spreading disease.
But especially, it’s been used for those in government who have acted as if there is an acceptable level of death that we should allow to happen without action, and for the special and scientific advisors and their pet journalists who sought to implement the evident stupidity of ‘herd immunity’ as if we were mere animals to be slaughtered; and then to cover their traces and deny their words even as the world cracked beneath their cloven feet.
And it’s been used to eviscerate the media and Labour Party Parliamentary cultures that worked unceasingly to the put the right into government because of their fear of mild socialism, and which are still more focussed on attacking the possible socialisms of yesterday than attacking the manifestly incompetent government of today.
That’s a whole lot of stuff to say that you’ll never forget; and a whole lot of names and dates and faces and figures and crimes to remember. If we are genuinely to remember all of these (and the many more I’ve failed to list that are the targets of current and righteous anger) then organisation will be required way beyond simply pouring out our anger and grief and outrage on social media. Just threatening to remember is not enough. We need to actively remember, and to create structures of social memory that will perpetuate and channel the current anger towards necessary and good social transformation.
To put it a little more succinctly: we must not only remember, we must remember well.
Also common over these last few days and weeks is an aggressive rejection of the Second World War analogies that have dominated “British” (though less pervasively Welsh, Scots and Irish) popular politics almost ever since the event. This is, mostly, good.
But it is a shame for what I’m talking about right now. Because Guilty Men, the book that cemented the popular rejection of “appeasement” for a generation – and arguably ever since – is arguably the best conceivable example of remembering well in the midst of crisis. The popularity of the book at that time, and the widespread knowledge of its arguments destroyed forever the reputation of many of its leading targets, whilst its broad perspective and mixing of personal and structural perspectives on wrong arguments and actions meant that it could not be easily dismissed as merely scurrilous dirt-digging. The mystery of its authorship and the high-profile reviewing of the book by some of its own authors as publicity exercise was an obvious, but still subtly brilliant, piece of marketing.
The communal survival of working-class and anti-fascist forces (whether individual or national and international) was experienced and correctly understood, partly thanks to the frame that text offered, as being nothing to do with the corrupt and cowardly elites who had appeased Hitler – whether by those who actually read the book, or by those who lived within the understandings it generated. The myth (and truth) of working-class resilience and elite weakness it fostered helped put the Labour Party into power in 1945 because it chimed so well with the experience of working-class people through the war years and the centrality of the labour movement (as much unofficial as official, and as distinct from the Labour Party) in defending themselves against unscrupulous employers, foremen, profiteers and the ‘little Hitlers’ of established authority.
As the lived experience of the war disappeared, and the guilty men myth receded, so “the war” became simply a nationalist myth that served an ever-narrowing (and ironically, increasing neo-American) conception of Englishness. But the sea-change Guilty Men had been part of had already brought about a vast shift in the conditions of life and in the distribution of wealth for those who had lived through it. It is a book worth celebrating. And it is an example worth both following and moving beyond at the current moment.
It’s worth following in its big sweep, and its concentration on key figures. Whilst social structures matter, it is impossible to rip apart existing ones without naming and deposing important individuals who have maintained, built and profited from them. In any contemporary Guilty Men, for example, Tim Martin, Philip Green and Richard Branson will surely deserve chapters of their own within sections on the businessmen who put us where we are – and such chapters will be able, through looking at the most significant and relevant actions of individuals, to illuminate systemic issues that would otherwise be dull and lifeless.
It’s worth following in its collective authorship: appeasement was too big an issue to be tackled by only one journalist, and the same applies (to an even greater extent) to Covid-19.
It’s worth following in its speed and its ambition. The reshaping of the world that it was part of was exactly what its authors had intended. A significant part of the reason for this was the sheer speed with which it was done. They completed a book-length and cohesive polemic that came at the extant political debate apparently out of nowhere and smashed it apart before there was a chance of resistance. That must happen again.
Most importantly though, it’s worth following in that the Guilty Men of the coronavirus pandemic must be a book. Not a podcast that can disappear once its makers stop paying for bandwidth, or that disappears from the centre of their homepage once they’ve launched three new episodes. Not a blog that can be closed forever over malicious accusations of “copyright infringement” or libel actions a site host is too scared to face down. Not a website that gets pulled from the whole of China or Europe or America because of state policing of the megaservers that run the internet. Not a newspaper article or three by prominent left-liberal journalists who modify their overt opinions within weeks or years because of blackmail from far-right doxxers or friendly pressure down the golf club.
No. A book.
A book that sits heavy and brooding and fascinating on shelves and lurks in the world’s libraries for whatever time humanity has left. A book that thuds down in front of parliamentary benches and sends a chill of dread over those who usually so easily deny science and humanity and the words they said last week. A book held in the fist of every righteous journalist shouting desperately at last for substance over spin. A book that can be smuggled across a border and read in secret when the state deploys “emergency power” to impound it or prevent people reading it. A book that a widow walking into Wetherspoons next time they open can hold high and recite as she shames the cheapskate drinkers pretending they’ve forgotten.
Unlike Guilty Men though, this is not a project for only three authors, and only one publisher. Because of the way new media has grown in this century, and the economics of the mainstream media over the last generation, mainstream journalists in general lack the ability to tell the variety of stories that need to be told in such a text. In particular – though there may be honourable exceptions – they still lack the ability to analyse the role that their own industry has played in the veneration of asset-strippers, financiers, profiteers and privatisers and think-tanks over working people and genuine experts. The best-informed contributors are likely to be – inter alia – academics, podcasters, alternative journalists, data scientists and epidemiologists. There will likely be editors who have never worked on a physical book before, and a global array of proofreaders and checkers and legal consultants who never contemplated a cooperative enterprise like this before.
There will need to be analyses and explanation of the biochemistry of viruses and their social and economic history, on the friendships and business links between politicians and advisors and bad scientists, the beneficiaries and planners of NHS outsourcing, school meals, the economics of Universal Basic Income, on the specifications of Personal Protective Equipment, on the science and practice of 3-D printing, supply chain mechanics, the economics of caravan parks and second homes, rent strikes, charity law and organisational theory, behavioural economics, Rugby Union, the contract arrangements of the Stereophonics, the sociology of disasters, and a whole bunch of things that only weeks (or days ago) were arcana to most of the world. Any of these areas – and many more – need exploring in a form that can be held in a large volume. And that’s for the “United” Kingdom edition alone.
To be both authoritative and rigorous, and include sufficiently deep data to truly nail today’s guilty men (and, albeit to a lesser extent, women) is likely to take something of the size, vision and unavoidable complexity of Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, and to include a similarly-sized accompanying database. Few, to be honest, will read it all or even be able to – but this is true of many if not most of the books that have decisively influenced history.
Such a book, like the original Guilty Men, must appear at speed to be as useful as it could be in shaping our collective future. It needs to lay out grounds for prosecution and concrete possibilities for action against those who are at fault, and to be ruthlessly fact-checked throughout to protect against libel actions and the bad faith counter-arguments of the think-tanks owned by the wealthy. It needs to suggest immediately actionable remedies from the miniscule to the massive. Every edition will be a gargantuan task.
Fortunately, hundreds of millions of skilled writers, activists, academics, students, scientists, editors, mathematicians, sociologists, illustrators, artists, bookbinders, printers, publishers, techies and thinkers are on lockdown right now.
Fortunately there are a vast multitude of co-working tools that were never available before. The biggest challenge is not the resources or the data, but the willingness of people who’ve spent their lives desperately competing to cooperate like they always dreamed was possible.
We can do this.