Sally Flint looks at the state of poetry, continuing the joint series with the Morning Star on the cultural fallout of Covid-19. The photo by Jasbat Malhi is of Dr. Rahat Indor performing in Tagore
History shows that catastrophes, conflicts, traumas and protests provoke poets to write, and that the most insightful poems survive because they contain a universal truth connected to the human condition. So how are poets dealing with disease, death and often contradictory political rhetoric in a world that has suddenly and unexpectedly locked-down our lives – a place where we’re clearly not ‘all in this together’?
However, as the virus spreads there are multiple windows opening, especially related to online technology. Poets are used to connecting things in their heads though, pinning down what Coleridge describes as a poem being, ‘the best words in the best order’; they are well practised in staying focused to search out and unravel the truth.
For example, there are poets taking purposeful walks to scrutinise nearby cemeteries, researching past flu epidemics, noticing signs in newly barricaded shops, and empty public spaces. Poets are asking what matters most to friends and families, what ‘isolation’ means, and what Covid-19 is doing to the poor and BAME communities, imagining alternatives and what happens next for humanity as a whole.
As riots spread across the USA, and marches across other capital cities take off, it shows that while the proletariat can be contained by a life-threatening virus for the common good, they can’t be by the horrific murder of a black man by a policeman on the side of a road in Minnesota, witnessed on screens in homes around the world.
Poets are always on the lookout to connect narrative threads – as storytellers they are alert to ‘plot holes’, and can capture injustice in a few words. It’s why Jeremy Corbyn used poems to great effect, reading Wilfred Owens’ ‘Futility’ on Remembrance Day in 2015 and often quoting Shelley’s ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ to drive home a political message, for us to ‘to rise up like lions’. Poet Laureates Simon Armitage and Carol Anne Duffy are also showing showing that poetry is not about privilege or elitism.
Simon Armitage performing 'Lockdown'
We stand united on a precipice unlike any other time, where capitalism is exploiting but not providing for the many. There are new voices and imaginations needing to be heard, and brave new poetry editors who are poised to publish challenging writing. Spiteful, confusing tweets and blogs may come and go, but meaningful poems that reflect the strengths and vulnerabilities of the human condition have the potential to drive positive change and endure. Websites and publishers like Culture Matters can get key messages across quickly and effectively, just as a virus spreads.
Poets’ imaginations will be fired up as more stories emerge out of this pandemic, and political falsehoods will link in creative minds. We will be watching to see if the homeless are back on to the streets this time next year, if health and social care workers receive a pay rise, and whether the newly unemployed desperately chasing poorly paid and precarious jobs remain indebted to private landlords. While politicians and the press turn blind eyes, poets will continue to write and scrutinise the ‘new normal’ in a quest for the truth.
It seems few of us will see out this virus unscathed, but it’s the workers – especially the struggling, less well-off workers who need to be remembered and supported most by progressive politics and progressive political poetry.
Over a decade ago, in her poem ‘Indoors’, the late Eavan Boland writes, as if forecasting Covid-19:
So it was above our neighbourhood, the world straightening under wings, the noise of discord clearly audible, the hinterland reaching to the sea, its skin a map of wounds, its history a treatise of infections.
In a ‘second wave’ of Covid flooding the planet, poets will be peeling back the skin to see what lies beneath, to show among other things how politicians have handled this crisis – or washed their hands of it. As June Jordan said, ‘Poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth.’ A body of politically driven and socially relevant poetry will surely grow out of this pandemic. It will continue to reach out in protest, anger, sadness and compassion, and touch even the hardest of rich and powerful capitalist hearts, so we can all move towards a greener, kinder, safer and more equal, truthful future.
Will post-pandemic poetry be like this? Steve Pottinger performing a recent poem of his.
John R. Eperjesi outlines the connections between techno, COVID-19, and Black Lives Matter. The article is in memory of Mike Huckaby
So we make music. We make music about who we are and where we’re from. - Jeff Mills
We need images of tomorrow; and our people need them more than most. - Samuel Delany
Techno music is global music. Every city around the world, big or small, has a techno scene, and there are more than a few countryside techno crews out there. Seoul’s vibrant underground techno culture was recently on display, literally, with the online streaming event “VFV Club” (www.vfvclub.live/about), which brought together 22 DJs from the city’s three underground techno clubs, Vurt, Faust, and Volnost, giving people who tuned in from around the world some much-needed machine music to help them get through the coronavirus pandemic, while donations helped struggling artists and venue owners earn some desperately-needed income.
Club Directors: Yoojun (Vurt), Marcus L (Faust), Jungtak Moon (Volnost)
But while techno is now global, this music first emerged in the early 1980s in local African American communities in and around Detroit, Michigan. Detroit is a predominantly black post-industrial city that is still recovering from the flight of well-paying auto industry jobs, first to the white suburbs starting in the 1950s, and then overseas. Population and job loss, combined with racist segregation and job discrimination, has resulted in racialized patterns of inequality in which black people experience significantly higher rates of poverty and unemployment. Economic inequality, combined with underfunded public schools, health and other social services, has made cities like Detroit especially vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic.
And yet despite all of this, African Americans from Detroit created one of the most exciting and important genres of music to emerge in the past 40 years. A recent viral YouTube video (above) shows a motley crew of Black Lives Matter protesters in Detroit marching and chanting through the streets while techno beats blast from a stereo, similar to the way that Korean pro-democracy protests are energized by the singing, dancing, and percussion of pungmul. A handmade sign declares, “Techno is Black! Police are Wack! Ravers 4 Racial Justice!” Black Techno Matters is a local community organization that works to remind people that, “the very roots of techno were planted by black artists in Detroit”. So who are some of these artists?
There is some debate over which African American artists from Detroit created the first techno song, “Sharevari” by A Number of Names, or “Alleys of Your Mind” by Cybotron, both of which came out in 1981. The title of the former refers to an upscale clothing shop and party club (spelled Charevari), and captures the Europhile fantasies of upward mobility and conspicuous consumption – fine wine, Vogue, Porsche – that characterized the African American high school party scene in late 1970s and early 1980s Detroit. The latter takes dystopian tropes of science fiction, paranoia and government mind control, and unleashes them on the dance floor.
In contrast to Motown, the pop soul music institution that grew up in Detroit and left a cultural void in the city when it departed for Los Angeles in 1972, these two songs offered a new style of post-soul electronic music which drew inspiration from the robot pop of Kraftwerk, the synthesizer-driven Eurodisco of Giorgio Moroder, and the futuristic funk of hometown heroes Parliament-Funkadelic.
Also in 1981, a DJ collective, Deep Space Soundworks, began to play an eclectic mix of dance records at parties around Detroit. Three members of this collective, Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson, are routinely venerated as the founders of Detroit techno, often referred to as the “Belleville Three,” a reference to the high school outside of Detroit where they met. But any narrative about the origins of Detroit techno that excludes Eddie Fowlkes, who was also a member of Deep Space Soundworks along with Art Payne and Keith Martin, is incomplete.
Juan Atkins had already been producing electronic music as a member of Cybotron, along with Vietnam War veteran Richard “Rik” Davis. Deciding to go solo, Atkins renamed himself Model 500 and quickly created his first solo hit, “No UFOs” (1983). This track was a hit on dance floors both in Detroit and in Chicago, where a new genre of dance music, acid house, was also incubating. After gaining attention in Chicago, the electronic music produced by Atkins, May, Saunderson, and Fowlkes began to travel across the Atlantic to dance floors in the UK and Europe. Fowlkes’s banging “Goodbye Kiss” (1986), May’s euphoric “Strings of Life” (1987), and Saunderson’s soulful hits “Big Fun” and “Good Life” (1988), all became anthems in the new rave culture that began to emerge across the Atlantic during the late 1980s.
Inspired by the immense popularity of the music coming out of the Motor City, a compilation for 10 Records in the UK was initially going to be called The New House Sound of Detroit, but when Juan Atkins’ delivered his contribution, “Techno Music,” the title of the compilation was changed to Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit (1988). For music critics, this new dance sound contributed to an older tradition of Afrofuturism which connected Detroit techno to the free jazz explorations of John Coltrane and Sun Ra, to the space rock of Jimi Hendrix, to black science fiction writers like Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler, and to films like John Sayles’s Brother from Another Planet (1984). On the question of why black science fiction, and by extension Afrofuturism, is important, Samuel Delany explains, “We need images of tomorrow; and our people need them more than most.”
Often described as the Public Enemy of techno, the Underground Resistance music collective and record label was started by Jeff Mills, Mike Banks, and Robert Hood in the late 1980s. Underground Resistance wanted artists to have complete artistic independence and to be protected from exploitation by record companies, and their music is wide-ranging, including everything from the gritty dystopian loops of Revolution for Change (1992), to the jazzy outer space utopianism of Galaxy 2 Galaxy (1992).
Techno DJs, producers, and fans around the world are inspired by the militancy and authenticity of Underground Resistance, and the UR symbol has become rebel chic, a Che Guevara for techno heads. The militant style of UR has been linked to the Black Panthers, an association confirmed by Jeff Mills in a 2006 interview:
All the black men you see in America today are the direct result of those actions: all the freedoms we have, as well as the restrictions, refer back to the government and the Black Panthers in the '70s . . . So we make music. We make music about who we are and where we’re from. - (Daily Yomiuri)
The title of Riot EP (UR 1991) alludes to the 1967 Detroit Uprising, also known as the Detroit Rebellion or 12th Street Riot, when the histories of racism and economic inequality erupted into clashes between black communities and the police that lasted for five days. Ideological conflicts over the naming of this event, whether it was an uprising, a rebellion, or a riot, is something that the people of Jeju and Gwangju can definitely relate to. With Black Lives Matter protests emerging all across the United States, Riot EP is once again in heavy rotation.
Mike Banks often appears in public wearing a mask, as does UR artist DJ Stingray. The mask is a symbol of resistance to the promotion of egotism and narcissism in commercial dance music culture, and visually alludes to the Mexican insurgent and former Zapatista and Indian resistance leader, Subcomandante Marcos. Mike Banks has two legacies of oppression and resistance in his family background, as his mother is Blackfoot Indian and his father is black, a biographical detail that can be heard in a song like “Ghostdancer” (1995), which refers to a resistance movement first practiced by Nevada Northern Pauite Indians in 1889 and quickly spread across the Western United States. Underground Resistance proves that you can be anti-racist and anti-imperialist and still rock a dance floor.
Protests and Pandemic
On April 24, 2020, the Detroit techno community lost one of its most beloved figures, the DJ, producer, and educator, Mike Huckaby, to complications resulting from a stroke and COVID-19. He was only 54 years old. The pandemic has devastated African American communities around the United States. Black people account for 13% of the U.S. population, yet 24% of COVID-19 deaths, nearly twice their proportion of the population.
While African American communities are fighting to survive this novel virus, a very old disease, the extrajudicial murder of black people by the police, has once again surfaced, this time in the form of an 8 minute and 46 second video of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin methodically choking the life out of George Floyd, confident that he can calmly execute a black man in public and not be punished. The murder of Mr. Floyd has triggered one of the largest protest movements in the history of the United States, led by the movement Black Lives Matter.
With historic Black Lives Matter demonstrations gathering in streets and parks across the United States, and around the world, people who care about techno music, whether at home or at the club, as a critic or dancer, as a producer or DJ, should take some time to understand both this movement to end systemic racism and this history of techno, because it is all connected. The roots of techno were planted by black artists in Detroit, but those artists have often been aggressively utopian in working to imagine racially and economically egalitarian futures.
From Detroit to Seoul
Local music scenes matter too. Underground, independent, non-commercial music, from folk to techno, and from jazz to house, is the heartbeat of every community. People often go to underground dance music clubs to escape their everyday lives for a brief period of time. As the soulful disco group Sparque sang in their 1981 hit for West End Records, “Let’s Go Dancin’:”
Working hard just ain’t no good
Do something else if we only could
The only chance we get to come alive is after our nine-to-five.
As Ernst Bloch taught us, fantasies of escape are serious business, as they often contain utopian dreams of a better future. But while some people go to clubs to escape work, for others the club is a place of work. From musicians and DJs who often live gig to gig, to sound and lighting engineers, cleaning staff, door people, security, bar staff, managers, interior and graphic designers, promoters, a massive amount of labor – physical, emotional, artistic – goes into the functioning of a club.
DJ Stingray at Contra in Seoul. Photo: John Eperjesi
With clubs in Seoul and other cities around the world shut down due to the COVID-19 crisis, venue owners who have devoted their lives and pocketbooks to their passion for underground music are really hurting. But there are some signs of hope. Earlier this month, the German government announced 12-month “Restart Culture” funding initiative which will provide the coronavirus-affected creative sector as a whole with €1 billion in assistance. $56m of that total will go towards grassroots venues. Hopefully the South Korean government, which has shown remarkable compassion and leadership during this difficult time, will find a way to devote some resources toward keeping the heart of the local, underground music scene beating.
David Erdos introduces his new collection of poems, downloadable below. The collection is illustrated by Max Crow Reeves, who also made the image above.
Coronic Irrigation: An Introduction
by David Erdos
If an irritation is seen as something that disturbs The smooth surface, thus came Corona to rub And to warp settled flesh. I started setting my thoughts Into verse as February sought its foreclosure, and by The time of my Lockdown on the 23rd of March
Words were dressed
By the rhythms and rhymes
Echoed within this introduction, As my pen tried to tidy the chaos Of what I feared and felt coming next. And so it has proved,
As the simply unconceivable came to dream us, Making our past lives the fiction that a sedentary State came to write. And so I posted each day Each written text to colleagues and friends On email and textbook and then started
Recording on Youtube from the my own Psalm 23 To cast light on some of the issues I felt Would spike and stain everybody; Johnson As Bete Noire, and Cummings the stain On each night. Or the Cabinet Corons as a whole
Who have stumbled by day and through darkness. In the clash of information they’ve given The fight to feel free has begun. What has been The true contagion; Covid? Or, the fact that we Have become almost nstitutionalised in our houses?
As BLM and BAME batter, to master the murders At hand, who has won? This is what these poems reflect, Along with Max Crow Reeves’ stunning photos. Each entry is a diary, and a novel, too; a small film. Poetry I would hope for those unversed in it.
Monologues with a mission. Fires first found In thought’s kiln. The hope is they will speak And soothe or stoke irritations, and that as these Striving words wound oppressors, the scars On screen and on paper may in some small way
Soon reveal the rising heart held beneath This book of me written for you. Life after Lockdown will sequel. But here’s the first feature that tries To describe what most feel.
It was written in my garden each day And recorded across the day’s music. As the birds sang their warnings, I lucky to have light and space, Wrote towards darkness as I tried to
Contain our new real.
The downloadable pdf below is free, but if you want to make a donation towards our costs, use this button. We hope you enjoy reading it.
even the dogs, distended with heat. i wanted rain. women with their conscientious shopping washed away. these mutant brides of hygiene, trending and aerobic, who tsk my dirty boots in queues. this mineral stutter. gardens stained with brute occasion. chalk reproach. hedges choked with bunting. england: a comic turn, drawing a string of flags from his fly. rapture of hands. i wanted rain. trampling the vintage of a sun-fucked face. on days when days are graves. lack gravity or grace. men, in the blank stare of their tatts, whose guts are globes, whose biceps groan with empire. anchors, roses, fragments of a fragrant name. rain. to rinse this sickness, island ridicule from skin. this city, where history exceeds its shadow. stall and loop. audition the deadpan fault that feeds on us. again, again. estates unspeak their skinner box verbatim. smoke. and flame. conditioned and engulfed. we are. i wanted rain to put these civic fevers out. they're burning still. in vicious figment cinders, still. my friend, to tread your empty name to echo. to write the slant exception of your name on dirty walls. the rain would wash this too. and our illuminated wasteland: the futile, sovereign portraits of our martyrs: bishops, pricks and pawns. and you. any name to sanctify a scene of threshing hurt. tread these borders, boards, you walk abroad like thespy ghosts. could cast your emanated arms in wax this night. christ's face in the grain of the kitchen table. his imprint in the splinters. rain. to dress you in this deluge too, and all our mob, their masochist vulgarities, in chains and chains and chains. cats, made manx with mutilation, maimed like saints, they spray their sympathetic wounds on everything. i wanted rain. percussive stunt with thunder purge the shape of me made minotaur and new. to flirt my thrashing form through calendars and mazes, prose. where others have been before. and i am the turd emoji of trespass, an effluent refrain you'd scoop from pools. i have written this poem before. no, this poem was written without me: into the decimal amber jots of a pit bull's eyes forever. into the garret appetites of libertines, the somnolent garotte of smack, mouths slack with musing, yielding in their eyries to the pleasures of the spleen. and chains and chains and chains. and rain. escape is begun by betrayal. give me courage enough for that. to know all flags are hoax, all names. to refute her slovenly canticles, that fine old woman, who's lairy pastures' rearing only weeds. she'd bind your bogmouth shut with reeds. tell me, my friend, why i feel so unclean. on the corner, some preacher spilling wilful tight-lipped syruptone, his reflection warped in windows. the fields have shed their shovels too, and idiots are out there, begging brightness from sky, the cryptic elegance of herons, cranes, the chancy depth of rivers. i wanted rain. concentric shocks that drive me inward toward you. something clockwise breaking. covert and austere. england: rolling up the sleeves of rumour, readies his ringmaster's whip. god is a portable darkroom tonight. your image resolves in a shallow chemical bath. a whisper arrives from the outside world. the rain will come. canned laugh. little white lies. promises, promises.
Flags, fascism, mourning, and the machinery of capitalism
by Fran Lock
Listen, it didn't happen the way they're telling you it did. This poisonous myth of 'resilience'. Politicians love that word, and in recent years it has become a useful get-out-of-jail-free card for those who would make a fetish out of working-class survival to serve their own devious ends. Don't let them do it. This 'spirit of the blitz' thing is a lie. This government's persistent attempts to analogise coronavirus as an invading 'enemy' is insidious bullshit of the first order. This is not a 'war' against ideological opponents. The virus is remorseless and motiveless. It isn't tactical. When politicians recruit the iconography of the Second World War it allows them to yoke values of endurance, stoicism and sacrifice to a creepy nationalistic script that is toxic to the notion of global solidarity. To class solidarity too.
If fortitude is continually positioned as an exemplary British quality, then those who are not comfortably or obviously accommodated within their narrow conception of Britishness become morally suspect by default. Hate crime is on the rise. Xenophobia is on the rise. Antiziganism is on the rise. Further, by presenting the crisis on purely national terms, the government is able to elide the inequalities that exacerbate the virus and which the virus further exacerbates, cynically presenting Covid-19 as some kind of great leveller, which it manifestly is not. If you are poor you are twice as likely to die. If you are a person of colour and poor you are four times more likely to die. These are the facts.
The cynical manipulation of language, memory, identity and the dead
Listen, it didn't happen the way they're telling you it did. There was no Knees Up Mother Brown amongst the rubble. The outbreak of the Second World War saw a sharp increase (57%) in crimes of all kinds. There was hoarding, racketeering, speculation, a flourishing black market. There was violence too. The 'plucky resolve' of the poorest amongst us was a government fiction driven by propaganda films such as 'London Can Take it!' That famous photograph of the milkman picking his way through a bombed out street to deliver the milk? Fake. The man in the picture is not a milkman, but a photographer's assistant, posed in a white coat.
That isn't to suggest that acts of great kindness and courage did not take place. The point is, there can be no visual shorthand or semantic catch-all for the complexities of mass conflict or the trauma it initiates. To act as if there can is insulting and monumentally inattentive to history. Inattentive to the present too, and to those who exist under such conditions still; whose experience of the current pandemic is and will be shaped by the legacy of diplomatic sanctions and military intervention both. Coronavirus isn't war. It isn't like war either. Nothing is. But what does link both experiences is the government's cynical manipulation of language, memory, national identity, and the dead.
Listen, it isn't happening the way they're telling you it is. V.E. Day threw these manipulations into sharp relief for me, walking home in the sweltering heat, through a wasteland of flags and 'patriotic' bunting, the strains of Vera Lynn blaring through somebody's open window. I wanted to stop one of the women, flipping over charcoaled something on her barbecue, and ask her 'what are you celebrating?' but was worried the answer would only depress me. Many of the flags were accompanied by slogans, either posted in windows, inked onto the fabric of the flags themselves, or chalked inexpertly onto the pavement: 'Thank You Key Workers!', 'Thank You NHS', 'Stay Home, Save Lives', 'We ♥ NHS!' Laudable sentiments, as they go, but something about the way in which they were nationalistically framed is deeply disturbing. Something about the reductive sound-bite quality of the statements displayed against backdrop of union flags. As if we, the working-classes, had become the chief producers of our own propaganda.
The sacrifice of workers
The allied defeat of the Nazis is a testament to international cooperation, and the fight against fascism is an ongoing struggle, one worthy of commemoration and respect. However, mainstream media narratives have, for years, been subtly recalibrating these acts of remembrance to suggest that working-class life has value only when instrumentalised in the service of the military industrial complex. And 'sacrifice', particularly of poorly paid and exploited workers, has become the rhetorical and thematic hinge between a nostalgic evocation of war-time Britain and the Britain of our current crisis. The 'sacrifice' for example of front-line NHS staff. The 'sacrifice' of those providing essential services and exposing themselves to the risk of infection. The 'sacrifice' of care workers, bin men, and bus drivers. The 'sacrifice' of postwomen, check-out operators, and teachers. 'Sacrifice'. As if they were soldiers. As if the daily risk to their lives was a deliberate and meaningful choice in a world of infinite options.
When the government, through its various media mouthpieces, speaks about the 'heroism' of these people, it does so in an act of abdication. If key workers are engaged in feats of exemplary individual bravery, then their deaths are their gift to us. The state bears no responsibility for allocating adequate resources, or prioritising safe and fully-funded working conditions so that these deaths may be avoided. No, a floral tribute and a posthumous round of applause are quite sufficient. And the beauty of that system is that after these people are dead they can continue to be exploited, as political propaganda.
It's not the way they say it is. The 'sacrifice' narrative allows governments to arbitrate on which working-class lives are meaningful and which are not, contingent upon our 'usefulness'. It's a farce. Or it would be if it were remotely amusing. How can Johnson invoke the spectre of herd immunity – a strategy guaranteed to impact the poorest amongst us first and hardest – one minute, then bombastically extol the virtues of key workers the next? We are the same people, the same communities, but it is only those of us actively risking and losing our lives to the functioning of society or the machinery of capitalism who are worthy of notice. This was ever the strategy of the military industrial complex, which for years has mobilized the bodies of working-class men and women to recruit support for its interventions and to shield itself from criticism: if you protest the war – any war – you are pissing on the memory of those who 'died for you'. A proper display of 'gratitude' entails a tacit acceptance of the ideologies that produced that war, the exploitation of working-class labour by the armed forces, and the unacceptable conditions under which many military personnel serve. This is the government's strategy with regards to key workers too.
A stale, pale history
So, 'what are you celebrating?' What is being marked, remembered or enshrined? What kinds of equivalence are being posited? What notions of 'service', notions of 'endurance'? It hurts my head. On the phone that night to an elderly relative who tells me I'm 'overthinking', who says, 'of course you wouldn't join in, you hate Britain.' I almost want to cry. I want to shout. I don't 'hate Britain', not in the way that he means. I hate the way political elites exploit and abuse their people; I hate the way successive governments have made a fetish out of our endurance when endurance was unavoidable, when survival was our only priority. I hate the way they leave our traumas unrecorded and untreated, then reimagine us, years down the line, as cheerfully mucking in and making do. I hate nostalgia, and the way the Tories have weaponised it to turn us against one another. I hate the way our richly storied subjectivities have been flattened and diluted to produce a stale, pale history by numbers: Vera Lynn and victory rolls, polka-dot dresses and nylon stockings, gollywog jam and rationing.
It's not the way they tell you that it is. I lay awake and thought about it for hours. I'd been reading about the Great Smog of 1952, a public health disaster that's almost vanished from popular consciousness. How Britain's cleaner burning anthracite coal had been exported to pay off war debts, which left thousands of predominantly working-class homes burning toxic 'nutty slack' instead. Over five days in December 12,000 people died as a result of a pall of poisonous vapour that settled on London. Mostly poor people. The government of the day – Churchill's government – were insultingly supine in the face of these deaths. The war was over. Working-class life no longer mattered.
I have always mistrusted public displays of remembrance. At their best they provide an opportunity for disparate people to coalesce around a moment, to find community and meaning in their separate experiences of tragedy. But at their worse they make a fetish of the dead. They lose the granular particularity and almost infinite tenderness with which human life deserves to be mourned and cherished. Such ceremonies embrace spectacle, which is hardly conducive to acts of probing reflection; they universalise experience, which tends to evade any form of reckoning with the historic and material forces that produced the death. They reclaim our dead from us, gather them up into narratives of nationhood or 'cause' or party. 'The dead' become an abstract concept, an undifferentiated mass whose job it was to die and to be dead. After sufficient time has passed we forget that they were people like ourselves. In which context, what does it mean to 'commemorate' or 'remember'? If the war is obscured behind period costume, sound-track and slogan, and all the aesthetic signifiers of its era, then what is it we are being asked to 'commemorate'? Who is steering the ship of public memory?
'Long live death!' is a fascist slogan. José Millán-Astray, a key military figure in Franco's dictatorship came up with that one. Nauseating, isn't it? And echoed everywhere throughout fascist discourse and rhetoric. For fascism the dead are always with us, an immortal moral exemplar, constantly evoked and enlisted through ritual; through myriad speech acts, inscribed upon civic space in countless memorial gestures. For fascism, it is death itself which confers meaning upon the life of a person. Conquest is glorious, but death is the sanctifying seal set upon conquest. That is, of course, if death comes at the service of the fascist state. The most exemplary deaths are those that take place during war: 'War alone brings all human energies to their highest tension and sets a seal of nobility on the peoples who have the virtue to face it.' writes Giovanni Gentile in the odious Doctrine of Fascism, ghostwritten on behalf of Benito Mussolini, 'All other tests are but substitutes which never make a man face himself in the alternative of life or death.'
Further on, from the same text, 'In Fascism man is an individual who is the nation and the country. He is this by a moral law which embraces and binds together individuals and generations in an established tradition and mission, a moral law which suppresses the instinct to lead a life confined to a brief cycle of pleasure in order, instead, to replace it within the orbit of duty in a superior conception of life, free from the limits of time and space a life in which the individual by self-abnegation and by the sacrifice of his particular interests, even by death, realises the entirely spiritual existence in which his value as a man consists.' Discursive, rapturous, and broadly nonsensical. Remind you of anyone?
I'm being somewhat facetious, of course. But only somewhat. Neither Trump nor Johnson are afraid to co-morbidly entwine notions of nationhood and sacrifice in ways uncomfortably close to fascist ideology. That doesn't make them fascists, not exactly, but it shows, I think, that capitalism and fascism are kindred spirits. There's an Adorno quote that is applicable here: 'Fascism is itself less 'ideological', in so far as it openly proclaims the principal of domination that is elsewhere concealed.' For Adorno capitalism is more dangerous because its messages are coercive, manipulative and insidious. Yet through its covert workings, its slick populist appeals, its slogans, its dexterous deployment of nostalgia, its sentimental appeals of concepts like 'resilience', and 'freedom', capitalism can help to bring about the conditions under which fascism can rise and flourish. And this should give all of us pause.
Nicholas Baldion discusses art, portraiture and the Covid-19 crisis, illustrated by some of his portraits of NHS workers. The painting above is of Karl, who works for the NHS in Oxford, and it's by Tim Benson
In the ancient Roman Republic, there were laws preventing anyone but the patrician class from having their portrait made. This is because the ruling class of antiquity understood well the power of art, and they wished to prevent this tool from falling into the hands of the plebeian masses.
Today, art - and portraiture in particular - is available to anyone who can afford to pay.
That is until the coronavirus turned everything on its head. All layers in society, especially the artist, have been forced to re-evaluate how they understand the world. The idea that ‘we are all middle-class now’ - an idea that every class-conscious worker knew to be a fallacy, but which had been prevalent amongst certain layers of society - has been utterly destroyed.
The working class is now visible for even the most thick-skulled to see. The category of ‘key worker’ reveals to all that the lowest paid and least respected - the supermarket workers, the delivery drivers, the transport workers, the cleaners, the nurses, and healthcare-workers - are the ones that society cannot do without.
In stating this fact, the immense power of the working class also becomes apparent. As Ted Grant famously stated: not a wheel turns, not a lightbulb shines, not a phone rings, without the kind permission of the working class.
Art mirrors life
It is often noted that art provides a mirror to the mood in society. It is no surprise then that the popular outpouring of support for the NHS - seen until recently every Thursday with the ‘clap for the NHS’ events - should be reflected by the art world.
Artists who would normally paint the portraits of paying clients are turning their talents towards healthcare workers. From the big names in the oil painting world, to the emerging artist and amateur painters, hundreds of NHS workers have been matched to artists and have had their portraits painted.
It is important to recognise the genuine nature of this mood. The claps and cheers for the NHS come loudest from working-class neighbourhoods and estates up and down the country. Likewise, the hundreds of artists participating do it because of a genuine admiration: they rightly understand that these workers are the ones that society should be honouring.
Lives sacrificed for profit
At the same time, we must highlight the hypocrisy of the capitalist media and Tory politicians who clap and sing praises for NHS and frontline workers. These same workers are dying preventable deaths, precisely due to the policies and failures of this government.
These workers are forced to work in unsafe conditions. They are gagged from talking out about the lack of adequate PPE. And they are often paid poverty wages. Their lives are being sacrificed needlessly.
Some of the health care workers I have spoken to have told me that they had been threatened with the sack for making political posts on social media, or for speaking out about inadequate PPE. Indeed, even Labour MP Nadia Whittome - who returned to work as a carer - was sacked from her zero-hours contract job after speaking out about the lack of PPE.
Consider the case of the cleaner working for private contractor ISS at Queen Elizabeth’s hospital in Woolworth, who was suspended and who faces the sack for requesting PPE. Think also of the nurses at Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow, who were forced to use bin bags as makeshift PPE equipment, and who all subsequently contracted coronavirus. And think of bus driver Emeka Nyack Ihenacho, who died after contracting Covid-19. He was at risk due to his asthma. Yet he was told he had to go into work or face a pay cut, despite there not being safety measures in place .
The poor are dying at a faster rate than the rich. There are 55 dead for every 100,000 in the poorest neighbourhoods, compared to 25 dead per 100,000 in wealthy neighbourhoods. The deaths - and the inequality in the death rate - are only likely to increase as lockdown measures are lifted prematurely, with more lives sacrificed on the altar of profit.
Time to demand
To my fellow artists, now is the time to stand with our brothers and sisters working for the health service, and with all key workers working in unsafe conditions.
Don't fall into the establishment’s narrative of ‘sacrifice’ and ‘heroes’. The NHS workers I have spoken to don't want to sacrifice their health. They don't want to sacrifice their lives and those of their families. They don’t want to be remembered as heroes. They just want to do their job as professionals.
Now is the time to demand that they get the correct PPE. To demand that they get the hazard pay due them. To demand that the families of dead health care workers receive death in service benefits. To demand that our nurses and health workers are never again in a situation where they have to rely on foodbanks - that they get the pay rise due them.
To demand a fully-funded training programme for doctors, nurses, paramedics, and medical staff, with decent pay and hours to increase staffing levels across the board. To demand that all the auxiliary staff, cleaners, and porters are taken back in-house, and that we put an end to the poverty wages that they have been suffering for so long. To demand that the private profiteers who have been milking our NHS are driven out. To demand that we have a fully-funded and fully public NHS, run under workers’ control and management.
Artists: now is not the time for cutesy portraits of smiling NHS workers that conform to the Tory narrative. These are a just pat on the head for NHS workers, whilst they remain silenced. Now is the time to take up the mantle of the great artist and communist Pablo Picasso, who famously said:
What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who only has eyes, if he is a painter, or ears if he is a musician, or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he is a poet, or even, if he is a boxer, just his muscles? Far from it: at the same time he is also a political being, constantly aware of the heartbreaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image. How could it be possible to feel no interest in other people, and with a cool indifference to detach yourself from the very life which they bring to you so abundantly? No, painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war.
For more images, see here and here. There is also a virtual exhibition of portraits of NHS workers here.
Nicholas’ own series of portraits of NHS workers - 'Safety not sacrifice' - can be seen on his instagram: Baldion
Esther Leslie questions the media messages and slogans around the Covid-19 pandemic, as part of the joint Morning Star and Culture Matters series on Covid-19 and culture
A picture flashed through social media channels. A woman, in a Stars and Stripes dress, protesting at Huntington Beach, California, holds up a banner: Social Distancing = Communism. State-enforced regulations, the result of the Covid-19 pandemic, insist on keeping a perimeter of 6 feet around each person to prevent the spread of a virus. These rules were interpreted by her, and many others, as the unwarranted intervention of authority into the sovereign life of the individual.
Is not the opposite more true: that social distancing suggests neo-liberalism in spatial form? You should remain alienated from the social whole, from others, because to band together is to develop class consciousness and reasoning. ‘There is no such thing as society’, said Thatcher, and hoped we would retreat, at least ideologically, to our strong individual selves, bolstered by our families and the compulsion of tradition, cossetted in our homes, that we have bought, preferably off Labour councils, turning ourselves into property owners.
In contrast to Thatcherite and Trump-ish definitions of the social, its defence as a realm of collectivity led to this banner on some people’s social media profiles: Physical Distancing and Social Solidarity. Physical distance to protect bodies but social solidarity as an expression of support for NHS workers and the commitment to volunteer to aid the vulnerable. It affirmed the desire to support each other through our loneliness, at the start, when there was still some hope and a spirit of experimentation abroad.
We could still experience things communally, in Zoom pub quizzes and free theatre online. But the name of the social was held onto resolutely by those with the power to decree what should take place in it – and their ears were apparently deaf enough to historical and political resonance to make a public information message for radio that made me wince each time I heard it: ‘Observe national social distancing guidelines with each other, currently set at 2 metres.’
‘We are all in it together’, they say, in order to produce a sense of unity. We are all in it together and to say otherwise is to unjustly politicise the situation, because politics are divisive and division should work only for the purposes of rule, not for the purposes of critique.
We are all in this together – and we applaud those on the frontline. The frontline, that metaphor from war, referring to a space most proximate to active combat, the killing zone. And all this is war because our Prime Minister would like to be seen as Winston Churchill, although in any case the Second World War is the off-the-peg reference point for every event that slashes through the nation and rattles stability. Even the opposition cannot leave war references behind, when appeasement.org pay to plaster a billboard in Kentish Town with the accusation that the Prime Minister is less like Churchill and more like Chamberlain.
Because to fight a virus we need a war – but not the class war, anything but that. We are all in this together, but not socially proximate, not conceived of social beings. Indeed a phoney, unused, NHS army of volunteers has to be mobilised to counteract the Kropotkin-inflected principles of the mutual aid groups that sprung up uncontrolled and just got down to helping.
But who hasn’t used the phrase in recent politics? ‘We are all in this together’, said David Cameron and George Osborne, when they used it to justify austerity measures, and Ed Miliband tussled over how to fill it with something approaching meaning. We are all in this together. But we are not so much in it together as outside it together, all of us looking in on a spectacle of government, a circus of staged briefings, in which nudges and deliberate miscommunications are meant to spread fluidly across the social media that slides under our fingers, more viral than the virus.
Silly fonts, illogically photoshopped adverts, inept slogans – all appearing as failures of communication, fudges of policy by the indecisive, but actually modes of management through confusion and pranking. Nothing will stick and we can get no handle on what is meant and what is not meant. We are all in it together, as we stand side by side clapping health workers next to those who will turn on them in a breath, if they point out the inequities of the situation, or worse, do something about it, by withdrawing labour. We are all outside this together, socially distanced, clapping our hands before wringing them, when we see the assaults to come on those who make up or exist within the welfare state – which is most of us indeed.
Our media claim for themselves the name of the social now and the trinity of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook bridge distance virtually. Social media are one of Platform Capitalism’s greatest hopes for profits. Across social media, the slogans proliferate, doctored, adjusted, in a war of words that are composed to nudge or to nudge nudge wink wink or to cock a snook or make a cheap joke.
In response to the corruptions of government, the debacle of a senior government advisor providing a test case of ‘one law for them, another for the rest of us’, a phrase replicated itself on social media, in more or less this form: ‘Now the English know what it's like to be ruled by the English.’ And, with this, the contradictions within the social whole that is the United Kingdom are prised open as a joke-not-joke.
One should not mock the chronic sick, And nor should we mock Dominic Whose road-based therapies recall, Damascus-bound, those of St Paul Who was, you lot should be reminded, On a road trip when unblinded. Dom need make no apology! It’s not just opthalmology That sees Road Treatment’s benefits! It’s a cure-all for the many! It’s A tested and well tried procedure From whooping cough to paraplegia! For instance, the old dean of Keble’s Gout’s returned: drive him to Peebles! Abjure the lure of penicillin! Simply drive to Enniskillin! Infantile paralysis? Why not try a drive to Diss? Your child it born with a cleft palate; Drive the brat to Shepton Mallet! A cerebral catastrophe? Fixed by a drive to Leigh-on-Sea. You find your mum’s airways restricted? Motor her to the Peak District; A femur pops out of its socket? Drive all the way to Drumnadrochit. Obviously if you have a stroke, It’s in the car to Basingstoke; And likewise cardiac arrest Demands a drive to Bristol West! So if your stomach ulcer bleeds Jump in the car and drive to Leeds; Caries rot your yellow teeth, They gleam before you’ve got to Neath; Struck down with Huntington’s Chorea? Simply drive to Hazelmere. A touch of cancer? With a whoosh Drive off to Ashby-de-la-Zouch! And when they say you’ve caught malaria - Hull Regeneration Area! Just even feeling sort of sick You’ll cure on drives to Walberswick And when they say you’ve got Corona A nice long drive to Barcelona Should see you right! Whate’er you have Just punch a route in your sat nav And soon, on the A23, You’ll find the perfect remedy! All you have to do is DRIVE! It Cures what ails ya! Or go private.
Contagion wants to shake your hand. Now you’re ‘it’ and you don’t even know it. When everyone else could see it coming, the Prime Minister dismissed it. With more time to prepare than most around the world, he squandered it all, sleep-walking into disaster with missed COBRA meetings, warnings disregarded, then talk of ‘herd immunity’ and ‘losing loved ones before their time’ as if sacrificing the sick and vulnerable to a lottery of death was a plan. Now the Government’s playing catch-up to avoid a backlash as a silent wave of death sweeps the country, taking mums, dads, husbands, grans, thousands upon thousands more than the official figure because if you weren’t tested you didn’t die of it. The dead nurses, who worked 12-hour shifts, caught it on their own time, not due to binbag PPE after the hollowing out of the NHS. You see, the Conservatives are super-spreaders of lies. The problem is, they just don’t care. They read us to see how normal human beings should react. So take off your Brexit blinkers. COVID – the Tories are on it, they’re all over it, it’s on them, they own it.
Helena Sheehan continues the Culture Matters and Morning Star series on the Covid-19 crisis and various cultural activities, by looking at its effect on science. Photo: Dave McNally
OF THE many dimensions of the present pandemic, swamping our lives and suspending our normal reality, one of the most central to our culture has been the role of science. Every report on our all-virus-all-the-time news references science and the new media stars are epidemiologists, virologists, mathematicians, physicians and public health officials. My Facebook newsfeed has been dominated by amateur epidemiologists.
I do not mean this disparagingly. The times demand that we all inform ourselves and allow specialist knowledge to permeate our collective consciousness to find our way through this crisis. There have been all sorts of challenges to the fast-developing science of Covid-19, ranging from religious immunity to 5G susceptibility, but the over-riding story has been trust in science.
There was massive public pushback against the Johnson-Cummings flagging of a poorly conceived herd-immunity strategy and the Trump suggestion of disinfectant injections. In Ireland, where I live, the health minister — grandstanding with constant interviews and photo-ops — was quickly forced to backtrack and apologise after pronouncing on the 18 previous coronaviruses where no vaccine had been found. And there was disappointment in Africa when the Tanzanian president, with a PhD in chemistry, looked more to prayer than science and supported spurious theories on origins and remedies.
Science, of course, is not a simple matter. Science is always inextricably enmeshed in politics, economics, philosophy and culture. There is a long Marxist tradition of exploring science in all the complexity of its interactions, standing in contrast to the myopia of positivism and the obfuscation of postmodernism. Generations of Marxists, from Marx and Engels, through Bernal, Haldane and Caudwell, to Gould, Levins and Lewontin, have embraced the cognitive capacity of science while highlighting the problematic shaping of science under capitalism.
Marxism explains this pandemic in terms of the whole network of interacting forces that have created it. Epidemiologists have been warning that such a pandemic was inevitable. Marxist writers who put epidemiology in a wider social-political-economic context, such as Mike Davis and Rob Wallace, have been clearly communicating to a wider public that industrialised agriculture, wildlife trafficking, hyperglobalisation, degradation of public health systems and big pharma-dominated research were creating the conditions for such a pandemic. Just as the 1918 flu spread by mobilisation for war, so Covid-19 has proliferated along the global circuitry of capital.
A Marxist approach also clarifies what is to be done. The current crisis demands that the priorities of public health override all other considerations — not only individual liberty but proprietary science and medicine. It thus runs counter to the whole trajectory of capitalism and points to the necessity for socialism.
This pandemic highlights the need for a global, public and open framework for science, focused on the urgency of finding preventative, diagnostic and therapeutic responses to this virus, particularly a vaccine. It should transcend all considerations of prizes, patents and profits. It requires transparent and international sharing of all relevant experimental and clinical information. The World Health Organisation (WHO) is the obvious body to co-ordinate this effort and the biggest obstacle to the optimal fulfilment of its mission is the US government.
The Trump administration has been negotiating with a German pharmaceutical firm to develop a vaccine for US-only use, pirating personal protection equipment en route to other nations and undermining and then defunding the WHO. This runs against everything the world needs today, with the US accusing China of trying to steal its research on vaccines and treatments for Covid-19, when clearly all such research should be in the public domain.
There is much media speculation on life after lockdown, some of it very shallow, but some of it more penetrating. In querying what has changed in us, in our society, as a result of this experience, many have said they do not want to return to our former normality. They have become increasingly aware of the devastation that capitalism has wrought on our bodies, societies and planet.
Things we were told were impossible suddenly became possible in these islands and elsewhere in this crisis — an end to a two-tier health service, increased funding for biomedical research and clinical resources, a ban on evictions, a rent freeze and a reduction in carbon emissions.
We have lived, however partially and temporarily, in a scenario where public health and welfare overrode the imperatives of the market. The government implementing these measures in Ireland were also responsible for running down our public health capacity and being on the other side of the class struggle. They will want to row back and it is the responsibility of the left, with considerable public support, to resist this.
Of the many memorable sights and sounds that have flowed through social media during this period, I could not refrain from sharing an image from a demonstration of New York health workers for this article. As you can see, its main banner reads CAPITALISM: DO NOT RESUCITATE.