Flooding the zone with shit

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Possibly more significant than the Brazilian president’s diagnosis of Covid-19 was a guest at an Independence Day lunch in Brasilia three days before.   According to the Guardian (7 July), three days before the diagnosis Bolsonaro had lunch at the home of Todd Chapman, the US ambassador to Brazil.   Also present at that Independence Day celebration were several top cabinet members and the president’s son, Eduardo, a politician who is Steve Bannon’s representative in South America.

Nobody has been more influential than Steve Bannon in fomenting the ideas and policies of the global fascist Alt-Right.  Boris Johnson borrowed ideas and phrases – such as the ‘EU deep state’ – used by Bannon when head of Breitbart News.  The supposed US ‘deep state’ is now the object of a populist US insurgency apparently supported by the president.  Bannon was Trump’s campaign manager for the 2016 election and vice president of Cambridge Analytica, which developed and tested the ‘build the wall’ theme on the US population.   A similar meme in the UK, ‘take back control’, was developed by Dominic Cummings, who spent 90% of Vote Leave’s advertising on the Vancouver-based company AIQ that became the holding company for Cambridge Analytica.  These memes have no purpose beyond building a sense of nationalist exclusivity and nativist aversion to foreigners – and loyalty to the strong man who will keep the foreigners out.

Observers of the current chaos in the US, UK, Brazil and elsewhere often ask why the populist leaders, Trump, Johnson and Bolsonaro, behave so ineptly.  Why do so many people follow leaders with no discernible plan or competence?  The reason, as the journalist Jay Rosen has explained, is that the plan is to have no plan.   Rather, the leaders promote massive confusion about who is responsible for Covid-19 and the economic and social situation, fixing blame on ‘leftists’, the press, China, or some other foreign element; imposing tariffs that will disadvantage their own populations; withdrawing from the World Health Organisation … and so on.   The aim, in the words of Steve Bannon, is to ‘flood the zone with shit’, overwhelming the media and the population with disinformation, distraction, and denial.  Out of this chaos will step the saviour strong man, as Trump stepped out of the clouds of tear gas released on his own people to hold up a bible in front of the White House church.  

As Hari Kunzru has written, the deployment of the US military against Americans exercising their First Amendment right to protest would confirm the transition to autocracy.  So far, the US generals have refused Trump’s command to send troops into American cities.  Ironically, the secret agent in the fight against the Alt-Right may turn out to be COVID-19.  Neither Johnson and Bolsonaro, for all their posturing, has escaped infection. The coronavirus has presented a visible natural threat that puts all others into perspective – although a significant proportion of the US population continues to believe that it is a left-wing hoax.  Nonetheless, it appears that Trump’s appeal is diminishing.  Yet, when the intending autocrats leave the stage, the conditions that brought them power will remain.  

A city subordinated to the virus

In the late 18th century, William Blake wrote a poem, ‘London’, that depicts the city subordinated to trade.

I wander through each charter’d street,

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow …

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Blake originally wrote ‘dirty’ street and ‘dirty’ Thames, but, as Raymond Williams pointed out in The Country and the City (p.148), the change of adjective introduces the idea of ‘chartering’: the organisation of a city in terms of trade.  As he wanders through the streets already (in 1794) under the control of the Corporation of London, Blake notes people bound by ‘mind-forg’d manacles’: the religion that keeps the child sweeping chimneys, the patriotism that emboldens the soldier to defend the king.  But mainly he hears the curse of prostitution and the commodifying of relations that spreads both mental and physical plague.  All these, Blake implies, derive from a social system where people have to sell themselves to survive.

Perhaps our current time is the first period for several hundred years when the city is not subordinated to trade.  The stores are closed.  The streets are almost empty.  Metal beer barrels line up outside the deserted pubs.  There is less traffic and less noise.  The air is cleaner.  Most people are indoors, learning to live without the constant pressure of work.

I’m not suggesting that capitalism has been magically transformed.   But perhaps the lockdown is producing a change of consciousness.   Economic fundamentalism has failed to prepare us for or protect us from a natural and predictable occurrence.       Faced with the prospect of people dying from starvation as well as from the coronavirus, the Conservative government is supporting the population with sums of money that would have been unthinkable only a few weeks ago.  Homeless people are being housed.   Those self-employed or on short-term contracts can hope for government funding to tide them over.   Those on permanent contracts but currently without work because of government restrictions on social gathering will receive 80% of their normal income.

Much of this promised support has yet to come through, and some people may not be caught by the safety net.  But even Boris Johnson accepts that there is such a thing as society.  Perhaps – just perhaps – we can look forward to a somewhat more caring and communal future.