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Splinters: June – short essays on the here & now

This month: Whatever happened to Dunkirk spirit?...

SLIMY KNOWLEDGE... Endgame?... The Fire of Moscow.

Splinters collective
1 June 2020
Splinters
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Theo Inglis. All rights reserved.

The withdrawal from Dunkirk
The Withdrawal from Dunkirk, June 1940. | Wikicommons/ Charles Ernest Cundall. Some rights reserved.

Dunkirk Beaches
Dunkirk Beaches, 1940 | Wikicommons/ Richard Ernst Eurich (RA). Some rights reserved.

Whatever happened to Dunkirk spirit? Part One
by Rosemary Bechler

"The Allies were gifted with time. Naval ships, vehicles, passenger ferries, fishing boats, yachts and boats owned simply for pleasure were assembled.
A handful of civilians even joined the mission, sailing out into the Channel voluntarily.
Over the course of nine days this fleet, supported by British planes overhead, was able to rescue most of the troops."
BBC News on 'What actually happened at Dunkirk?'

Mid-May, Transformation published a stunning essay by Hanna Meretoja, warning against deploying the war analogy to describe the fightback against coronavirus. There have been some awful examples. Ministers keen to absent themselves from European cooperation had to hope that Matt Hancock’s invocation of the ‘Blitz’ on March 14 would persuade “some of the biggest names in British manufacturing” to supply a new British ventilator from scratch, quickly. But by mid-April, the FT was reporting that a potentially lethal procurement programme had sent manufacturers down entirely the wrong path for treating COVID-19 patients. Little competes with the Daily Mail headline for May 15 for sheer callousness, however, taking aim at the teaching unions and ‘imploring’, “Let our teachers be heroes. Magnificent staff across the nation are desperate to help millions of children get back to the classroom…”.

Another thought-provoking article left me wondering nevertheless what had happened to ‘Dunkirk spirit’ – that energetic revenant visiting UK bookshelves and screens from June 1940 to today. (As I write, the Express front page is busy pouring the latest libation: “Dunkirk spirit is with us... and will see us through coronavirus –.” ) This was an investigative piece by Peter Geoghegan and Tansy Hoskins, looking into the hiring of Deloitte by the UK government, one of the ‘Big Four’ accountancy firms, to manage PPE procurement. They had interviewed several manufacturers who responded to the urgent call, only to be frustrated by a delayed response and red tape. 8,000 emails in less than a month received an automated reply. But there was a failure to deliver, and questions were now being asked about Deloitte’s lack of knowledge of the “British textile industry, which has seen a flourishing of small businesses making high-volume fast-fashion items for a domestic market.” Those who had “avoided Deloitte’s centralised system” were reporting greater success.

Indeed, the message seems to be, if you want to get something done, avoid the British state. Remember the 750,000 NHS volunteers who in just four days eagerly signed up for the “biggest call-out in England since the Second World War”? Over a month later the vast majority had yet to be called into action. You can read multiple online reports from frustrated and disappointed applicants. Self-organising has again done much better: witness the phenomenal growth of Mutual Aid groups… 4,300 connecting an estimated 3 million people by mid-March. Meanwhile, Deloitte has also been making headlines for failings in helping the Department of Health roll out its national testing programme. Here again, there is incredulity at the priority given to a centralised system that runs the danger of bypassing all the very local knowledge that actually makes the difference: local authorities, local trackers and tracers who know the community, GP surgeries. And then there is the little matter of the government’s decision to plump for a centralised rather than a decentralised COVID App., leaving people far less control over their own data.

There is no dearth of people – groups of people, businesses small and large, experts, local authorities, trade unions, community organisations and whole communities willing to help. But it is as if the British state that Johnson presides over would rather do everything without them.

****

I am suddenly reminded of the ‘transformational state’ that Sir David Varney envisaged for big data Britain in 2020, in his 2006 report for the UK Treasury:

“All the people, children and young people, workless people and other customer groups can choose packages of public services tailored to their needs. Public, private and third sector partners collaborate across the delivery chain in a way that is invisible to the public. The partners pool their intelligence about the needs and preferences of local people and this informs the design of public services and the tailoring of packages for individuals and groups. Measured benefits, services and facilities are shared between all tiers of central and local government and other public bodies. The public do not see this process, they experience only public services packaged for their needs."

So here is the great British public, relegated to being perfectly known and utterly passive, package-consuming consumers, with a gulf between us and an invisible state. Even more depressing, is there a clue of what has happened to that Dunkirk Spirit in the Deloitte article ? The ability to act together is thwarted, and here traded in for a fashionable medicalization of victimhood which vindicates each personal case but remains a reproach to what might have been. The authors report:

“Each of the five textile manufacturers that openDemocracy spoke to reported increased stress levels – sickness, repeated loss of sleep and raised anxiety – from knowing they could help, yet having their factories empty during the crisis.”

What about that “everyday story of country folk”, The Archers, which might have been relied on for national respite during lockdown? Instead it was simply withdrawn, only to ‘re-open’ as a sequence of ghostly interior monologues? Are we well on our way to what Varney wanted?

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SLIMY KNOWLEDGE
by Iain Galbraith

Condogno
Codogno. Attention / moderate speed/ damaged road. | Some rights reserved.

There is a famous experiment in which photons or electrons are fired individually towards a detector screen through an intermediate screen containing two small holes. On arriving at the detector screen each particle makes a dark spot. As the impacting particles accumulate, however, what emerges is neither a random arrangement of spots nor the repeated arrival of particles behind one or other of the holes.

Surprisingly, the detector screen instead displays the characteristic pattern made by a wave of light diffracting and interfering on passing through two holes simultaneously. The shocking conclusion drawn by observers of the "double-slit experiment" (as it is known) is generally cushioned by the word "seem": singly emitted particles seem not only able to pass through two holes simultaneously but to have an awareness of past and future enabling them to "select" a point of arrival on the detector screen that contributes to the classical interference pattern for waves.

Moreover, when the set-up includes a detector indicating which of the two holes the particle passed through on its way to the detector screen, the result is equally astounding: the particle passes through one hole only and there is no interference pattern. Instead a single spot appears behind that hole. The particle seems to know when it is being observed.

The Nobel physicist Richard Feynman (Lectures on Physics, Vol.III, p. 17) called this phenomenon "absolutely impossible to explain in any classical way" and "in reality ... the only mystery". What is an outsider to make of it? What "seems" implicit in the experimental outcome is the existence of a special kind of "knowledge" inherent in the primordial soup of the universe. Uncanny!

The current worldwide lockdown and deconfinement procedures can only induce an equally discomforting bedazzlement in the observer. Does the coronavirus know something we don't know? Does it for instance "know" – by way of a slimy awareness science has yet to probe – whether its worldwide net mass is increasing or decreasing? And are some governments party to this "knowledge" while others remain unenlightened? Or how do we explain the conflicting nature of anti-viral measures when the experimental setup is, if not replicated, then at least similar?

In Germany the "Lockerung" (relaxation of protective measures) is in full swing. People are planning summer holidays. Germans love Italy, some preferring the "Teuton barbecue" (self-toasting on the Adriatic littoral), others the frescoes and wines of Tuscany.

Under "Codogno" Trip Advisor proposes visits to a clutch of churches. This is the town whose mayor Francesco Passerini announced the first Italian lockdown on 21 February. The robust measure, introduced on a day when there were only 17 confirmed cases of transmission in the country (Time, 21.2.20), did not meet with universal approval. According to the head of clinical microbiology, virology and diagnostics at Milan's Luigi Sacco hospital, it confused "an infection which is slightly more serious than the flu with a lethal pandemic. It is not like that. Look at the numbers. This madness will do a lot of damage" (Reuters, 23.2.20). Within days infections had rocketed and towns all over northern Italy followed suit. But what made the Lega politician Passerini react so forcefully? Perhaps like the Sardinian Viceroy, Saint-Rémy, he had experienced some form of psychic continuum with the lurgy.

On May 23, Thuringia, one of Germany's states (Länder), announced it would do away with all coronavirus measures on June 6 including mandatory self-distancing and masks. However, according to the figures there were more than 11,000 active corona infections in Germany that day. So why were a handful of cases in Codogno considered dangerous enough to shutter towns, while 11,000 cases in Germany are deemed propitious to relaxing in restaurants and bars? The graph for Lombardy and Italy after February 21 shows an exponential upward curve. Germany's on May 23 showed a downward one. But does the virus know it's on the way down and should decently bow out? What if it suddenly reversed the curve through sheer pig-ignorance? It's no good asking Feynman: "We cannot make the mystery go away by ‘explaining’ how it works," he writes. "We will just tell you how it works." Axioms. Frustrating!

We need a different paradigm. As natural as birdsong or Einstein's brain and as unnecessarily lethal as the Great Famine of 1847, the coronavirus, we are told, bloweth where it listeth. The virus does what it does in its own inertial frame of reference and, like a guinea pig in an elevator, cannot tell if it's going up or down. However, the rules of its existence (and that of the observer) may shift precariously if it becomes subject to so-called (in Newtonian mechanics) "fictitious forces", forces caused by acceleration of the reference frame itself. We should avoid this virus at all costs. But it's those accelerators, the shakers and movers, we need to keep an eye on.

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Dr.Strangelove
War Room with the Big Board from Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove. | Wikicommons/trailer. Some rights reserved.

Endgame?
by Samir Gandesha

As was pointed out on 23 April by the Economist, close to a dozen states, from Azerbaijan to Togo have used the Covid-19 pandemic to arrogate more power to themselves. Indeed, this development has been particularly evident in Washington, Budapest, and Delhi.

Trump has claimed “total authority” for the Oval Office in opposition to state governors who had sought to loosen lockdown measures earlier. While he quickly backtracked on this claim, he has nonetheless more recently called upon his supporters (“Very good people”) in blue states to resist lockdown measures and “liberate” themselves from the authority of Democratic governors in an effort to get the wheels of the economy turning again, and has closed US borders and suspended immigration for sixty days.

Hungary’s president, Viktor Orban, having previously curtailed the autonomy of the courts, has indefinitely suspended the legislative branch of government, eliminating in the process the key liberal-democratic principle of limits on executive authority; Orban now rules by decree. The RSS in India, the quasi-fascist Hindu nationalist (Hindutva) force behind Modi has, in a classically fascistic move, characterized its Islamic “enemy” as the abject carrier of the Covid-19 virus (hashtags #CoronaJihad and #BioJihad have spread virulently via Twitter) just as the Nazis used typhus as the pretext for excluding Jews, isolating them in ghettos and ultimately murdering them. The targeting of Muslims comes in the aftermath, of course, of the unconstitutional annexation of Kashmir and changes to the Citizenship Act that explicitly and unapologetically discriminate against this much reviled minority community.

Spectres of fascism loom as a response to the chronic financial and ecological crisis of capitalism. Twentieth-century fascism, in part, offered a solution to the economic slump via an acceleration of absolute and relative surplus-value extraction from living labour by destroying the revolutionary Left, independent trade unions and other working-class institutions. In contrast to its anti-human twentieth century form, contemporary “post-human” fascism centres on a deepening of resource extraction on the very precipice of massive deskilling of labour, and widespread automation and employment of robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence, to wit: the prospective obsolescence of humanity itself.

The increasing superfluity of human beings now becomes clear amidst the pandemic as governments, by omission or commission, put the most vulnerable members of society, particularly people of colour, at grave risk of contracting and dying from the virus. Of course, it could be argued that human labour has never appeared more ‘essential’ than in our historical moment. Yet states are also showing themselves quite willing place such essential workers at extreme risk and to even die en masse, for want of PPE, for example.

The recognition of the irreducibility of certain (caring) forms of labour is certainly true in part, but to what extent will the pandemic tend to accelerate the automation of certain essential but sensitive jobs such as truck operations? Humans are “biohazards: machines are not,” as the CEO of the self-parking tech company Steer, Anuja Sonalker, recently stated.

***

In what is taken to be a depiction of the aftermath of a nuclear war in Endgame, Samuel Beckett depicts the destruction of nature taking on a specific spatial configuration in which time, itself, has seemingly come to a standstill. He represents in unsentimental though often ribald terms the obsolescence of human beings, reduced as they are to mere existence, and subordinated to the inscrutable machinations of geopolitical forces beyond their understanding.

The necessary supplement to Endgame, according to US philosopher, Stanley Cavell, is Kubrick’s Cold War masterpiece Dr. Strangelove. The effects of the social division of labour are crippling: Hamm cannot stand, his servant, Clov cannot sit. “Every man his specialty,” declares Hamm. Once they’ve outlived such social utility, Hamm’s parents are reduced, figuratively, to history’s dustbin, having been confined, literally, to garbage bins.

Today, this calls to mind, painfully, nursing homes, which have become funeral parlours for the living who await an end to the excruciating game of waiting. Amidst this newest aspect of the ecological crisis, states seem prepared to sacrifice the elderly, the infirm, the poor, indigent, black and brown, to the logic of the market.

But its domination was always already discernible with each breathless press release from myriad corporate head offices of massive downsizings producing inevitable, dramatic rises in the prices of their shares. The ante has simply been upped. For example, Republican Lieutenant Governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, recently suggested to Tucker Carlson on Fox News that the elderly might consider sacrificing themselves for the sake of their off-spring, which is to say for “the economy.” “Go and see is she dead” Hamm directs Clov towards his mother. The capitalist market lives on death.

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Fire of Moscow
Fire of Moscow, 1812 by Alexander Smirnov (1813). | Wikicommons. Public Domain.

The Fire of Moscow
by Christos Tombras


On September 14, 1812 Napoleon’s army was about to enter Moscow. The vanguard was headed by Admiral Joachim Murat, Napoleon’s brother-in-law, and King of Naples. Murat would enter Moscow first, and Napoleon would follow, triumphant, in a day or two.

Things did not proceed as smoothly as planned. For one, most of the Russian population and troops had already fled the city. To the approaching French, the whole setting looked very much like an ambush, so they were vigilant. The biggest problem, however, was the fire.

Nobody understood exactly how it started. The first reports about it were Russian, followed by French sources. By nightfall most of Moscow was in flames. When he arrived, Napoleon did not feel safe to stay. He had to flee.

The fire continued for a few days and when it died out, most of Moscow was destroyed. French troops looted the city and left some weeks later.

*

I wrote last time about conspiracy theorists and their claim that they are seeking truth.

Truth is usually thought of as concerning the correspondence between statements and states of affairs. One forms hypotheses and then tests these hypotheses against evidence, expecting to confirm or refute them. You can truthfully claim that “the cat is on the mat” if and only if the cat is on the mat. Truth, however, comes with strings attached. More important than truth, I wrote, is upholding a set of pre-accepted beliefs, a paradigm, or interpretative framework.

We always have some interpretative framework. All of us. Scientists and conspiracy theorists alike. We apply it to the phenomena at hand, and allow it to filter for us what is important from what isn’t. What evidence should one consider? This is exactly where the interpretative framework comes into play. That is what will show us what is relevant and what is not. It’s the interpretative framework that dictates what facts to accept and what facts to ignore.

*

Who started the fire in Moscow? Each side was blaming the other. The French thought that it was the result of the Russians’ fierce patriotism: They just wanted to spoil Napoleon’s triumph. The Russians, on the other hand, claimed that the fire was an unavoidable result of the savagery of the French: they looted its riches and then burned the city down out of envy.

For Leo Tolstoy who writes about the events in War and Peace, the blame lies on neither side. It might be “flattering” he writes, for the French to blame the brutal Russians, and for the Russians to blame “the villain Bonaparte”, but “it is impossible not to see that there could be no such immediate causes for the burning”. The evidence is clear: a wooden town, Moscow, was abandoned by its proper inhabitants and was now full of indifferent and careless strangers who were “allowed to take over and start cooking kasha for themselves”.

It’s impossible not to see, writes Tolstoy.

Perhaps it is also impossible not to see the exaggerated optimism involved in thinking of the pursuit of truth as a process of hypothesis forming, testing and refuting. Tolstoy’s view of the fire of Moscow might well be correct. But when you are, say, an inhabitant of Moscow at the time and you see, in fear and despair, the fire devastating your city and French soldiers looting your possessions, forming and testing hypotheses is low in your priorities. Tolstoy’s syllogism will not do the trick for you.

*

None can claim to have full awareness and full command of all the processes they participate in. It’s just not possible. Consider, for example, Engels. “History”, he writes a few years after Tolstoy, “is made in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between many individual wills […] What each individual wills is obstructed by everyone else, and what emerges is something that no one willed.”

With all their respective differences, Tolstoy and Engels share a Hegelian understanding of history. Hegel claimed that there is a logic in history, a logic that is not discernible on the level of individual action. History has a direction: it comes from somewhere and goes towards somewhere. Engels (and Marx with him) would agree. Their starting points differed, of course, and so did their conclusions. But both thought of history as having a direction, knowable in principle.

Tolstoy on the other hand would be more constrained. Even though there is a logic of history, this logic can only be retroactively interpreted. Historical processes are far too chaotic, the origin of this chaos being individual action and freedom as such.

People cannot avoid trying to understand the logic of events. Things can only happen for a reason. When you know the reason, things feel a bit safer. You hope you can prepare yourself. That’s a vain hope, and a false sense of safety. But when you are in the midst of things, the most important thing is to find something that can keep a check on your fear and despair. You need a reassuring explanation. Not truth.

A need to keep a check on fear and despair. Perhaps that’s what motivates conspiracy theorists.

Perhaps not only them.

Peter Geoghegan: dark money and dirty politics

Democracy is in crisis and unaccountable flows of money are helping to destroy it. Peter Geoghegan’s new book, ‘Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics’, charts how secretive money, lobbying and data has warped our democracy.

How has dark money bought our politics? What can be done to change the system?

Join us for a journey through a shadowy world of dark money and disinformation stretching from Westminster to Washington, and far beyond.

Sign up to take part in a free live discussion on Thursday 13 August at 5pm UK time/6pm CET

In conversation:

Peter Geoghegan Dark Money Investigations editor at openDemocracy and the author of ‘Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics’.

Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief, openDemocracy.

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