Images by youtookthatwell

1. The Capitalist Virus

When the full scale of the Coronavirus crisis first became apparent in the UK, one could have been forgiven for presuming that it signalled an existential blow to the global economic order as we know it. As the country began to comprehend the struggles we were about to face, surely the scales would fall from people’s eyes and the failings of Tory Britain, of austerity, of capitalism, would become self-evident and undeniable? The media-political apparatuses that sustain this orthodoxy could surely not compete with the lived experience of tens of thousands dying all around us, with everyday society as we know it ceasing to function, with long-observed contradictions of capital approaching their limits. Might we be correct in the optimism of our intellect matching that of our will, for once?

At the onset of this disaster, we were inundated with suggestions that we are not simply facing a repeat of previous recessions or other crises of capitalism, but rather something far more profound and epochal. Yet despite this apparent need for profound change to the way we live in order to overcome this extreme threat to society, any sense of proto-revolutionary fervour soon dissipated. The full force of the state’s ideological arsenal – and the inhumane indifference of its current custodians – quickly became apparent, as did our inability to resist.

As social distancing, government-enforced lockdowns and economic stagnation became our lived reality, everything in British culture appeared to stop: now nothing is happening or can happen, and we appear unable to theorise beyond the stasis. Attempts at responding are looking awfully similar to those of crises gone by: we appear set to resort, once again, to nostalgia, to deference, to reanimating dead forms of dissent.

As Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams wrote in Inventing the Future, this is typical of such an emergency, and that ‘as crises gather force and speed, politics withers and retreats. In this paralysis of the political imaginary, the future has been cancelled.’[2] All that exists in this eternal present is the struggle to avoid death, destitution or many other myriad virus-induced miseries. The past is all that Britishness can express, and if there is to be a future beyond The Virus, British culture clearly cannot conceive of itself as being part of it.

The immediate reasons for this apparent societal paralysis are entirely practical, of course. Across the UK, we are busier than ever at work (though of course the burden is not distributed equally among classes), sequestering at home, or are otherwise incapacitated dealing with the effects of The Virus. Whatever the personal circumstances, the overwhelming majority of us simply do not possess the time or energy to imagine or fight for a way out of the dire political fallout of our predicament.

This cultural stasis goes much deeper than a lethargic response to a singular crisis, however, and should be regarded as the apotheosis of forty years of neoliberal social conditioning often called ‘capitalist realism’, conceptualised by Mark Fisher as  ‘the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.’[3] This was our circumstance before the coronavirus crisis, and despite the urgency of this situation, where we still find ourselves.

‘The horizons of the thinkable’ [4]

Despite the acute threat it is currently facing, the lack of forward motion during this crisis should serve to prove that capitalism is remarkably flexible and adaptable to such shocks to its system. The apparent ending of capitalist realism is at least a decade in the making, and yet, as Matt Colquhoun writes ‘there’s still a way to go: simply pointing at capitalism’s failures does nothing unless you’re filling its (and our) lacunae with alternative forms of action.’

None of the short-term outcomes of this crisis are unfamiliar to us: you don’t need to tell citizens of the state of Aberfan,Hillsbrough and Grenfell what happens when a negligent state absents itself of any responsibility or duty of care for its citizens. The only difference, perhaps, is the sheer stupefying scale at which this disaster is unfolding. It seems therefore that the lack of emergent solutions or even strategies for fighting the causes and effects The Virus has unleashed suggests that once again we are simply not going to change the way we live for the better on our own volition in a radical enough way to deal with this or any other societal collapses that may be forthcoming (the climate catastrophe chief among them). Ultimately, as Colquhoun continues:

‘The truth, as the last three years have taught us, is that capitalist realism isn’t ending — it’s adapting to the times, as are we under its influence.’

The clearest explanation of this ‘adaptability’ is that, despite everything, nothing is beyond the ‘recuperation’ of the capitalist state. That is to say, the economic system that governs every aspect of our lives is extremely adept at taking that which is supposedly antagonistic to it – a protest, artistic dissent, an alternative way of organising, and so on – and manipulating its meaning to such a degree that it resultantly strengthens the hegemony of that which it intended to subvert.

Every gesture we live is refracted through the prism of capital: it codifies all thought and action we could possibly make, even that which is ostensibly a transgression. ‘The nature of individuals’, Marx writes, ‘depends on the material conditions determining their production’, and so inevitably ‘the ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships’. All of life is subordinated to capitalist production, and thus every grain of human behaviour is a priori assimilated into it.

This process of assimilation, Marcuse writes, transforms ‘works of alienation’ so that they ‘are themselves incorporated into this society and circulated as part and parcel of the equipment which adorns and psychoanalyzes the prevailing state of affairs’[5]. As a result, any modes of dissent are ‘deprived of their antagonistic force, of the estrangement which was the very dimension of their truth.’[6] With this in mind, we can observe how any nascent strategies for truly overcoming the lasting consequences of The Virus, rather than merely deferring them, have been quickly co-opted by those state actors who have exacerbated ­­or outright caused them in the first place.

We can see all around us evidence of this easy co-option by the state, and the malleability of our ‘organic’ collective culture and basic humanity under capitalism. Along every step of our attempt to understand and disrupt the political response to the crisis, Josie Sparrow writes, we can see how ‘capitalism has already mobilised to try and absorb this wave of everyday radicalism into its own currents’.

Notice, for example, the rate at which such terms and concepts as ‘mutual aid’ and ‘solidarity’ have been snatched from the public and utilised by the state, or the related phenomenon of clapping for healthcare workers. What started relatively organically was quickly and imperceptibly transformed into state-mediated spectacle, signifying nothing beyond its own passivity: a depravedly empty gesture when medical workers are desperate for material government aid. It may seem that the crisis is moving slowly, but the state apparatuses are certainly moving very quickly to contain any dissent.

Again though, there is precedent for this in our recent past. We are seeing a reconstitution of the ‘big society’ positioning of the Tory–Lib Dem coalition of the early 2010s, which underneath a twee, cosy veneer states quite nakedly to the public that the social state has been rolled back, and that everyone must fend for themselves in a country rigged against all but the most privileged. It has echoes too of the reactionary response to the summer 2011 riots, where communitarianism came to mean middle-class cosiness (a forerunner of the nauseating ‘clean for the queen’ initiative) while quietly hoping the army would be sent in to put the (often racialised) underclass back in their place.

Notice too how easily our ‘new’ way of locked-down living has become commodified. Banks and telecommunications companies have wasted no time in churning out lockdown-inspired adverts, with every commercial break on TV now a montage of checkered screens from an online chat app. The distinct form of alienated labour that comes from working from home has itself become a sellable commodity, with the rise of the Zoom platform seemingly overnight showing how the crisis can be extremely profitable for those in a position to hold the right intellectual properties or productive means.

Living with The Virus has also developed a distinct aesthetic dimension: aided by the compulsive reward system of social media, people are performing the crisis – baking bread, making skits, playing games, creating other shareable snippets of their lives – enacting a process of commodification in which, as Steven Shaviro writes:

‘aesthetic sensations and feelings are no longer disinterested, because they have been recast as markers of personal identity’, ‘transformed into data’, ‘exploited as forms of labour, and marketed as fresh experiences and exciting lifestyle choices.’

This too, of course, has a class dimension: as in life before The Virus, spare time is a precious commodity that only certain people have, so while middle-class people can be their best selves, working class people are as busy and overworked as ever, labouring in the healthcare sector, as couriers, in supermarkets, in countless other precarious and low-paid jobs.

Even this commodification of our own boredom is nothing new: Mark Fisher had described how what we once called and experienced as ‘boredom’ has been transformed to an economisation of limited attention spans, in which:

‘rather than imposing a pacifying spectacle on us, capitalist corporations go out of their way to invite us to interact, to generate our own content, to join the debate. There is now neither an excuse nor an opportunity to be bored. We endlessly move among the boring, but our nervous systems are so overstimulated that we never have the luxury of feeling bored. No one is bored, everything is boring.”[7]

Identifying these tropes of life with The Virus shows that we’re not experiencing new phenomena, but rather acute symptoms of pre-existing inherent features of capitalism. Thus to truly understand the crisis, we must examine how this act of recuperation relates to the dynamic playing out between the people and the state, and gain an understanding of how the liberal capitalist state functions, particularly in times of crisis. As Owain Hanmer notes, the fact that these concepts are being co-opted by the state in itself belies their own failures, in that ‘it’s unsurprising that many are suddenly advocating socialistic (even anarchistic) ideas and practices’ as ‘even the most rabid individualists…will rely as much as anyone on sociality, human cooperation and mutual aid’, and thus it is clear now that ‘their ideological position is at this point laughable and entirely untenable.’

Yet a mass mobilisation against this untenable ideological position remains dispiritingly elusive. Because ultimately, capital and the state retain the monopoly on meaning generation, so that acts of transgression quickly become gestures by which political orthodoxy can be maintained: the ‘precorporation’ of ‘materials that previously seemed to possess subversive potentials’, resulting in a ‘pre-emptive formatting and shaping of desires, aspirations and hopes by capitalist culture’.[8] Thus we can express ourselves collectively against the government’s barbaric action, but not in a way that actually raises dissent against the failure of the state, merely making up for its shortcomings without challenging the reasons for that failure.

This is why we cannot think beyond the crisis: it’s a capitalist crisis, indeed a crisis of capitalism, yet there is nothing to be imagined beyond it nor subversive possibilities within it. We are seeing the same things, the same patterns, as in any crisis. The only process is one of slow immiseration: disaster capitalism, the Bezosification of all our labour and resources, life under Tory Britain reaching grim, absurd conclusions. First the tragedy of austerity, now the farce of The Virus.

We have witnessed countless examples of people coming together to help one another through these difficult times. Yet, we have been frustratingly unable to convert this sentiment into truly liberatory ends: a mass movement of people capable of articulating the inadequacies of government action, and mobilising to do something about it. Broadly, we see a desire for communitarianism clashing with the cultural logic of neoliberalism. We must now also observe the specific ways this global phenomena manifests through actions of the capitalist nation-state, particularly the terminally-declining British state.

2. The National Virus

We can therefore see that a process of recuperation ­­– of pacifying and assimilating threats to capital –  is indicative of the capitalist nation-state’s ability to re-calibrate, rejuvenate and reconstitute itself in the event of a crisis, by taking that which threatens it and not only resist it, but incorporate and repurpose those very threats. This also elucidates how the British government have thus far maintained adequate consent for their programme, despite it evidently fraying at the seams.

The tension between an organic communitarianism and an engineered individualism (which essentially functions as a diversion of blame from state to its alienated, atomised population) is the latest iteration of this process. The government have successfully managed to convert naturalised principles of ‘interconnection and interdependence…in which we co-create one another’ – which stand in stark contrast to decades of neoliberal ‘soul-changing’ dogma – into its inverse, so that rather than fuelling dissent against the government’s inadequate response, it instead supports and approves it.

It must be recognised, however, that the liberal capitalist state is struggling more and more to maintain this settlement. It’s important to understand neoliberalism as a process, rather than simply a static ideology, in the same way that David Harvey states that ‘capital is a process and not a thing’[9]: it inherently contains a temporal quality. Thus, in its linear project of privatisation and paring down the utility of the state – ‘creative destruction’[10], as Harvey calls it – it contains a fundamental paradoxical contradiction, in that it must rely on its temporal Other – the history and folk memory of that which it is antagonistic towards – in order to function.

Thus despite the social state being non-existent, in terms of ideological apparatus the neoliberal state must function as if that social state still exists in order to maintain consent for what is effectively its own destruction. There are many ways it seeks to achieve this – encouraging the use of charity, relying on the fourth estate to do their bidding for them, outsourcing production to (and exploiting the resources of) the global south, and so on – but ultimately it draws upon finite resources, and will always have diminishing returns: the problem with rolling back the state is eventually you run out of things to privatise.

This is the logical conclusion of the neoliberal programme: the state has been shrunk beyond its ability to function even by the bare requirements of its most ardent ideologues, yet when the consequences of this make themselves known, the capitalist state still must function as if the resources of the state can be utilised if it is to govern and maintain hegemony. Crises such as the present one bring out this phenomenon most acutely.

The public – atomised, individuated, alienated – are left to the mercy of a welfare state that barely exists, and this is exacerbated in a crisis that relies upon a mass mobilisation of resources if it’s to be overcome, of the sort that in the past could only come from the paternalism of the capitalist state. As Umut Ozkirimli observes, people ‘may not be nationalists as such, certainly not of the xenophobic-bigot kind Farage had in mind, but we are all “nationals” looking to our respective states for help’[11], thus highlighting the continued reality that:

‘[we] are citizens who are emphatically reminded that the nation-state is the only institution capable of mobilizing and distributing the resources needed to fight such a colossal threat. Neither the nation-state nor nationalism is making a comeback, for they were never gone. Nationalism – the ideology – may rise and fall in line with the gravitational pull of politics; the nation-state – the institution – is the gravitational constant that determines politics.’[12]

This is the power the state retains, in spite of everything. It either holds the keys to the ‘public’ infrastructure (such that it still exists), or can lubricate the flow of the private capital holding our safety to ransom. Governments can easily exploit this public reliance by channelling it into a nationalism that masks any consequences of eliminating the apparent need for a state in 21st century globalised capitalism.

Thus there is a mutual reliance upon the mechanisms of the state – or at least the hauntological memory of how a capitalist state is ‘supposed’ to function – in order to survive. This is why neoliberals will always rely upon and pivot towards right-wing nationalism and authoritarianism, as we are seeing all over the world: it’s all they have left to draw upon, a void of nationalist sentiment to be filled with mythos and hyperreal governance in lieu of outmoded methods of coercion. Liberals are thus stuck between accepting that they have failed, and permitting a far-right, authoritarian nationalism that they won’t be able to control, as a means of absolving themselves. As Dan Evans writes of the British state’s response:

‘The right, as ever, is displaying a far better grasp of power and the nature of the crisis than the liberal centre. They clearly realize that they are in a fight and that their hegemony is under threat. This is why they are relentlessly attempting to depoliticize the crisis, to use Boris’ time in ICU as a propaganda tool, to shift blame, to diffuse responsibility, to appeal to nationalism using the language of sacrifice- ‘we are all in this together’. After all, this is a Government experienced in fighting culture wars and invoking nationalism to get people to support them.’

The specific ways that individual states fight these ‘culture wars’ to shore up their power in times of economic crisis depends upon on the precise nature of the national(ist) mythos on which they can draw, for this is national-geographic-historic specificity is all the liberal state has left to stem the tide of fascism in reaction to entrenched inequality.

National myth and its uses

Each nation-state has its own idiosyncratic methods of mobilising national mythos and history to coerce its people and desperately keep the wheels of (inter)national capital turning. This is then internalised by the neglected-and-desperate public as a means of coping via an always-already recuperated form of collective response that belies the true nature of the state’s role in mediating the capitalist status quo.

Take, for example, the United States’ response to 9/11, perhaps the only other precedent to the coronavirus crisis in terms of being a global spectacle-event, ‘an absolute event’[13] that rocked a neoliberal economy to its core. In an internalisation of the defining post-war American mythos of unfettered consumerism, everyday Americans were encouraged almost immediately by the state to put their fears aside, to keep shopping and going to restaurants as an act of patriotic duty that would keep the American economy afloat. This has since become the standard collective ‘national’ response to terrorist attacks across the Western world for the past two decades: an unthinking gesture of stoicism, a fetishised notion of ‘normality’ that places the needs of capital over the protection of people’s lives.

As one would expect from such an enduring national mythos, we can see echoes of this playing out now with The Virus, again most acutely in America, but also across the global north more generally: citizens protesting for the right to work and contribute to the economy, of ‘not letting the virus win’, despite the obvious detriment to individual human health. In this mode, nationalism functions as a kind of mass Stockholm Syndrome or cargo cult in times of crisis, which extracts notions of collectivity away from solidarity and towards a homogenising of basic human needs into a lumpen mass, in which the mediation of a ‘social relation among people’[14] – that is to say, of the spectacle, of capitalism – is the only societal goal worth countenancing.  Nothing highlights the simple inhumanity of the way we currently live more viscerally than this: it benefits us all that we ‘keep the economy going’, despite it putting every one of us at risk of serious illness or death ourselves or of contributing to the direct suffering of others.

It is through this that notions of solidarity and mutual aid are refracted away from a sense of comradely care for another human being and towards a ‘national duty‘ that then shifts focus back towards the behavior of individuals in service of the Nation. This generally comes in two forms: individuals are either commended for their individual acts of sacrificial heroism (doctors, nurses, teachers and so on) to mask the fact that they are simply workers whose safety is neglected by the government; or conversely, acts of ‘rule breaking’ (such as not abiding by lockdown guidance) that allow blame for the wider crisis to be project onto the moral failing of select individuals rather than the action of the state. To take just one example of the latter, people are blamed for going back to work and risking further spreads of infection, with cretinous and/or malicious broadcasters keen to depict this as individual acts of selfishness, rather than an obvious need to earn a living in the face of callous employers and governments.

The myth of ‘The War’

In the UK, of course, the spectre of the Second World War – or simply ‘The War’, such is its ubiquity – is by far the most overt formal mechanism that this recuperative, nostalgic nationalism takes, with hyperreal, second-hand folk memories of the 1940s existing as something of a state-distorted ‘structure of feeling’ that articulates a collective sense of survival during a national crisis.

While this mechanism has cast a shadow over all post-war British government policy both domestic and foreign – Thatcher certainly leaned on her ‘Churchillian’ sensibilities on the eve of the Falklands–Malvinas conflict, for instance – it is perhaps in the era of austerity that this mythos has been mobilised most cynically and effectively. In the first sense this is a simple matter of human life expectancy: the further we get in time from the War, the more its living memory leaves our collective mortal grasp. If The Blitz ‘[defines] British national identity’, Tom Whyman writes, it does ‘perhaps even more so now so few people are alive who are able to remember it.’ Once it becomes a phenomenon of collective nostalgia, rather than individual lived experience, the more instrumentalised its myth-content can become.

But on another level it is yet another consequence of the further embeddedness of capitalist realism in that, as Fisher writes, ‘the power of capitalist realism derives in part from the way that capitalism subsumes and consumes all of previous history’[15]. In such a state, the mobilising of nationalism and history becomes its modus operandi, its only possible way of asserting power against the reality of failing dogma. Individual stories are travestised and reassembled into a National Narrative. As Angus Calder notes in The Myth of the Blitz (via Patrick Wright’s On Living in an Old Country):

‘The ‘nation’ integrates public images and interpretations of the past. It works by ‘raising a dislocated and threatened – but none the less locally experienced – everyday life up into redeeming contact with what it vaunts as its own Absolute Spirit”.[16]

Thus what was once a fragmented, heterogeneous, ‘people’s history’ has been flattened out into an official state narrative, one frequently used to crush any dissent against government malpractice. The function of this narrative – and thus the central tenet of British nationalism – therefore has been the recuperation of communitarian values and converting them into a ‘national’ spirit that downplays any discontent towards the government and contains any revolutionary threat. We can see this throughout recent history, so we shouldn’t be surprised to see it leaned on so heavily at present because, as Owen Hatherley notes, ‘When it comes to treating the past as a weapon, the Conservatives are, and always have been, the experts.’[17]

‘Sentimental nationalism has trumped material reality’ [18]

That this Tory-arbitrated mythos relies upon a certain distortion should be obvious: anybody with a firm and sober grasp on British post-war neoliberalism can see how, as Charlotte L Riley writes, ‘a retelling of the war effort that focuses entirely on individual bravery and sacrifice over any collective endeavour’ is easily mouldable into an ideological structure that affirms the cultural logic of the way we currently live.

But it is easy, when deconstructing the ‘fiction’ of The War that the Tories exploit, to assume that it is simply a case of cooking the books of history, of circulating untruths, of ‘gaslighting’ the contemporary population into thinking their forbearers’ experiences were markedly different to what they actually were. This would be a simplistic reading: a lazy ahistoricity of the left to match the wilfully crude interpretations of the right. As Calder explains, the construction of the post-war British Myth developed out of a dialectic of (usually working-class) material experience and idealist (usually upper-class) visions of Britishness:

‘Its construction involved putting together facts known or believed to be true, overlaying these with inspirational values and convincing rhetoric – and leaving out everything known or believed to be factual which didn’t fit.’[19]

It is perhaps missed by many on the left that the most enduring elements of The War Myth – including that propagated by the right – is based on the notion that latently socialist values were present during the war, and despite its exploitation by the right to ‘support a myth of British or English moral pre-eminence’[20], they are still very much the foundation of the enduring Myth. As Ian Allison points out:

‘Class struggle was alive and well during the war – many of the rich and powerful were more afraid of disruption to business or revolution than of fascism – that is one reason why Churchill needed Labour support to prosecute the war. Working-class people had to fight over everything from access to air raid shelters, to housing, over pay, equal pay and to keep the police and wardens out of mass shelters.’

People did come together during the war, there was collective action, there was agitation towards the state. As Calder writes, ‘the demotion of ‘free enterprise’ in favour of communitarianism was always latent in the Myth’s structure, in its basis in opposition of ‘English’ (or ‘British’) values to those attributed to Nazism’[21], and this contributed to ‘the developing Myth often [assuming] a radical, socialistic character.’[22]

It shouldn’t be deduced that the ‘people’s reality’ is being supressed, but rather that it is being recuperated. This is what makes The War Myth – The British Myth – so powerfully alluring: it is not being thrust upon a population who are passively forced to accept it, or have been duped into it. No, it is invoking latent structures of feeling and collective phenomena that are already present within the culture which are ‘[stolen] for cynical political ends’, in the words of Robat Idris, and thus ‘hijacks heroism, and romanticises tragedy’ in order to ‘[celebrate] imperial Britain’s militarism’.

From this point, it is easy for the state to channel these feelings and transform them away from solidarity and towards a passive aquiesence to the mechanisms of the capitalist state. Adam Ramsay has observed this at play in the current crisis with reference to the monarch, who is nothing if not the literal embodiment of the British state:

‘Like a skilled musician, the virtuoso of British nationalism drew out these feelings that millions of her subjects already had, and carefully associated herself with them. The admiration we’ve all felt for front line workers, risking their lives to care for us and feed us. The joy we’ve all felt on our daily permitted exercise at spotting windows filled with children’s rainbows. The fear we’ve all felt as we looked the mortality of our loved ones in the eye.

Summoning the strength of all of these emotions, she named them as “the pride in who we are”, laying national claim to “the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good humoured resolve, and of fellow-feeling”. The latter term used, of course, because if she used the more common ‘solidarity’, then no one would accept the obviously absurd idea that these are specifically British characteristics.’

It is difficult for the liberal left to subvert this phenomenon, because it is not simply a case of correcting untruths, but rather unpacking and dispensing with embedded cultural ‘affects’ that not only contain a kernel of truth, but are held dearly by those who aspire to live by their values, preserve them as cultural memory and thus maintain a tangible link to family, tradition and place. As Michael Calderbank alludes to when discussing the power of British nationalism:

‘this sense that as materially poor as we might be, we are nevertheless privileged in our identities as bearers of a world-historical national lineage might be an illusion, but it can be a comforting one. It gives people a sense of value to their lives, something they can affirm and of which they feel they can be proud. Against the backdrop of people taking away everything they have of value, these communities are understandably resentful of a left which wants to deprive them of even this.’

This is how the right can obtain the consent of the public against their better interests, and this is how the left effectively becomes an enemy not only of the capitalist state but also of the population at large. Being seen as the enemy within, when in fact there is a simple aspiration for people to be empowered to live out the true meaning of their emotions in a way that’s not exploited for nefarious means: this is the difficult position the left often hold in British consciousness. The right-wing hegemons of the British state have exploited the feelings of love and comradeship that normally get us through in times of crises (and evidently did during The War) for their own ends. This is how neoliberalism maintains consent, and this is its primary mechanism on which its success hinges within the British state. The all-pervasiveness of this myth requires radical ­action to free ourselves of its causes and consequences.

3. The People’s Virus

So where does all this leave Wales? It’s clear that the British establishment has been extremely successful at drawing out a ‘meaning’ of The War and using it for its own ends, and they’re determined to do the same with The Virus. There must be a way for this to be transgressed, because it does not tell the true story of what has happened to us. It will not tell that parts of Wales suffered faster and harder than other parts of this unequal state, that testing deals ‘fell through’, that the Welsh Government often lapsed into apologia for the disastrous Johnson/Cummings experiment, that Wales faced constant pressure to further endanger its population because it suited the political goals of Westminster, and so forth.

It’s clear that devolved governance offers us precious little protection from the worst of Tory barbarity, even in times of acute crisis. This is especially true when power lies with Welsh Labour’s ‘rotten political culture’, but it is also a result of the inherent limitations of devolution itself. As Evans puts it:

‘For years many of us have been saying that Wales is a uniquely broken country: that our leaders are idiots, that people are nihilistic, past the point of caring. And now it has been demonstrated to the world.’

It is also clear that despite being on the cultural periphery of the British Myth (and indeed is often omitted from it altogether), Wales is far from immune to its influence. It is questionable whether devolution will survive in its current form after The Virus is through with us. Whether through government incompetence or otherwise, we have been held hostage to the poor advice and reckless strategy of social suicide coming out of Westminster. We assumed we had the power – even in its limited form – to do something differently, to save thousands of Welsh lives, but it simply hasn’t been possible without a disruption to the British state that our Welsh Government would not countenance.

This lack of political will to act differently – truly differently – is completely embedded into Welsh political culture. Indeed Wales appears more susceptible than most national peripheries to the British Myth and the assaults of its culture warriors (as the Brexit saga has shown), and a big fight is looming on the horizon to save any notion of governmental autonomy that its current political culture appears ill-equipped to counter.

It would be naïve and self-indulgent to assume these are problems held solely within the ranks of Welsh Labour (though of course they represent the most egregious examples and should shoulder the greatest responsibility). As Huw Williams writes:

‘What we’re seeing now is a function of the political culture we have created and we collectively sustain. In particular, this culture is typified by a debilitating quietism that is at the heart of the crisis in Wales — and which has allowed a seemingly disconnected and lackadaisical centrist Labour administration to plod on, cleaving to a Tory logic that is leading us inexorably deeper into further disaster, without so much as a cry in socialistic anger at the injustice of it all.’

The challenge for those who want to overcome this, so that those responsible are held accountable and prevented from ever wielding such destructive power again, is to find a way to break the people of the United Kingdom free of this totalising, damaging right-wing mythos.

The failed state

Fortunately, to a degree we can be reasonably confident that this time, perhaps, material reality is on our side after all, and that finally the British Myth has almost exhausted itself. Superstructurally and infrastructurally, a rot has set in over decades that no custodians of this state can overcome. As Aditya Chakrabortty has chronicled for years, ‘Britain is being stripped of its social infrastructure: the institutions that make up its daily life, the buildings and spaces that host friends and gently push strangers together’, resulting in ‘a society deformed by inequality and a public sector drained of both cash and confidence’.

It has almost become a slogan in left circles that ‘The UK is a failed state’, with examples ranging from the terrifying to the pathetically absurd; from tragedy to farce. All paths paved by British capitalism and imperialism have led to this: every plundered foreign land, every destroyed community, every social atrocity. The heavy weight of British History has created a national arrogance that can no longer insulate against liberal capitalism’s potential for collapse. As Musa Okwonga writes:

‘it is time to stop fetishising this legendary British stubbornness: this sense that the Brit is uniquely fit to ride out whatever storms the world sends their way, that they will never be enslaved by circumstances. You cannot sing Rule Britannia to a virus.’

The British Myth, quite simply, no longer makes sense: it has brought this country to a situation where the uneasy tension between libertarian capitalism and authoritarian nationalism – between what James Butler (borrowing from Stuart Hall) calls the ‘regressive modernisation’ of ‘nostalgic moralism together with a renovated British capitalism’ – has wrought a level of death and destruction that we should never again allow for. We need instead to make possible a future that the British state could never permit.

The opportunities for us to subvert and dismantle this myth from within, however, are dishearteningly small. The Johnsonian government cannot be deposed, and even aside from the crushing majority of the current administration, this country appears to be locked into eternal Tory rule. There will be no contrition from this dominant regime: the party of unfettered capitalism and social repression are not ideologically equipped to overcome the crisis, yet nor will they acknowledge the solutions that elude them due to sheer engrained spite and hubris. This institutional arrogance is compounded by a capitalist-realist public malaise, and as a result, Andy Beckett writes:

‘In Britain, it remains disconcertingly easy – and a sign of how lopsided our democracy is – for Tory governments responsible for disasters to change the subject. The rightwing bias of the press, worse now than in the 1950s, as there are fewer left-leaning papers, is the obvious villain. But equally important is a reluctance from voters to face up to the sheer scale of what the Conservatives have sometimes got wrong.’

Even if the Tories were in any way vulnerable, there is no electoral alternative of any real worth currently on the horizon of possibility. For despite this crisis once again showing that ‘working class people keep society going, despite being paid next to nothing’ the so-called party of the working class have once again opted to shed any radical potential – however flawed – in favour of once again opting for an ‘electability’ that has little imagination beyond adopting a simulacrum of existing Tory gestures of power. They will even crush their own democratic membership in the process.

We can go further still and recognise that the entire British state itself is beyond reform. Mindful of this impenetrability, and the ubiquity of the British Myth which manufactures its consent, we must be sober in our analysis of what can be done. Ours is not simply a task of consciousness raising: the apparent increasing obviousness of the failures of this state is insufficient in raising motivation for the mass transformative power we so badly need. A rupture may be possible, but it will not happen organically or automatically: it must be made. As Jacques Ranciere writes of the eternal stultification of the global working class under capitalist realism:

‘The exploited rarely require an explanation of the laws of exploitation. The dominated do not remain in subordination because they misunderstand the existing state of affairs but because they lack confidence in their capacity to transform it.’[23]

This points to a key failure of strategy across the varying sects of the UK left in the past half-decade or so, whose roadmap for success has often seemed to rest upon a naïve assumption that perhaps the state will just ‘collapse on its own’, that its own internal contradictions (and those of capitalism itself) will no longer be able to bear its own weight, and the whole edifice will come crashing down upon itself. It will not. There is no acceptable ‘natural’ conclusion to this crisis: just miseries piled upon miseries until it no longer becomes tolerable for anyone that cares about collective humanity.

But even then, even then, we have no guarantee of a progressive solution making itself viable through superficial modifications of current orthodoxies and state actions. As Laurie Macfarlane warns, ‘those who have spent years dreaming about a world beyond neoliberalism should think twice before popping the champagne’, because ‘there is no evidence that state action inherently leads to progressive social outcomes’. And as with the somewhat-analogous financial crash of the late 2000s, the only thing ‘Britishness’ can offer as a way forward at this point is a further pivot towards fascism:

‘It was the authoritarian right, not the progressive left, that managed to gain a foothold in many countries. The same can be said of the Great Depression in the 1930s. As governments struggle to deal with an economic crisis on a scale that could easily surpass both, there are signs that authoritarian forces could stand to benefit once again.’

There is a seminal passage from Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, shared often and in various contexts (most recently in Matt Colquhoun’s Egress, an exceptional and deeply personal introduction to Fisher’s work). It reads:

‘Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable.’[24]

The dialectic of ‘destroying’ and ‘making’ is key here: it is not enough to merely ‘explain’ that what we call politics – that is, the ‘distribution of the sensible’, to borrow again from Ranciere – is appearance, illusory, and obfuscation of the actual conditions-of-life of our mode of production. We must bring the edifice down: stop merely ‘talking about the end of capitalist realism and then pointing at it‘, and sweep away everything with it. ‘What is required’ writes Colquhoun, taking up Fisher’s thought, ‘is a tandem process of the razing of false consciousness along with it.’[25]

The meaning of The Virus

Let us be in no doubt that the people of Wales have been placed in mortal danger at the mercy of The Virus due to this country being locked within the institutions, power structures and mythos of the British state. A true, Welsh understanding of what The Virus has wrought upon us must develop an understanding of what Robat Idris calls ‘the tragedy’ of ‘our main political institution in Wales [thinking] time and again in terms of the capitalist United Kingdom’ and an acceptance of ‘the reality that the United Kingdom does not care one jot for Wales‘. The challenge, therefore, is to create our own meaning of The Virus that isn’t represented by the official British Myth, or even the official Welsh one, chained as our institutions are to this state we find ourselves in.

Much like the myth of The War, we need to tease out the real meanings of that which has been recuperated, cling on to them, articulate them, own them. Let ‘the meaning of The Virus’ that Wales constructs be different to the one constructed by the United Kingdom. Because materially, it is different: Wales is suffering because it is older, poorer, sicker than many other parts of this grossly geographically-unequal state. This of course stretches further back than the response to The Virus itself. Thus, to ‘beat coronavirus’, we must go deeper and dismantle British capitalism once and for all.

However, let us also not fall under the illusion that an independent Welsh capitalist state would have fared much better. Such a state would have still faced the same pressures other countries are facing: it would have sleepwalked into the same problems and have been ideologically ill-quipped to mobilise towards acceptable solutions. As Evans writes:

‘Changing our values and way we order the economy – ending capitalism – is therefore not a fluffy, hippy pipe dream, but an absolute necessity if the planet and humanity is to survive. Moderate centrism cannot help us – we need a global ecological revolution. The coronavirus, whilst an unprecedented human tragedy, has inadvertently provided us with a blueprint of how to overcome this. We have to seize the moment and start fighting now.’

We should be seeking a true alternative, while also knowing that a meaningful transformation of the way we live will be long process. We should be mindful therefore of the challenge that Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams present to us in Inventing the Future:

‘If full transformational change is not immediately possible, our efforts must be directed towards cracking open those spaces of possibility that do exist and fostering better political conditions over time. We must first reach a space within which more radical demands can be meaningfully articulated, and must therefore prepare for the long term if we wish to alter the terrain of politics substantially.’[26]

The inevitability of the state recalibrating and instilling a ‘new normal’ should not mean the left can lapse into complacency as if nothing has changed. Far from it: we need to find any openings to organise anew whenever and wherever they present themselves.

At the onset of this crisis, Michael Ryan of the World Health Organization repeated several times that ‘no one has ever responded in perfect time with the perfect response’, that ‘Perfection is the enemy of the good when it comes to emergency management’ and that ‘the greatest error is not to move’. Let us borrow this mindset. We should be looking, wherever possible, for moments of exit from that which binds us – The United Kingdom, imperialism, capitalism – that would allow a full and lasting positive transformation of the way we live.

Exiting The Virus

So, we have surmised here that capitalist realism cannot be subverted or transgressed in any meaningful sense. The Virus is simply the latest episode that, aside from the novelty in its scale, is still conforming to the way capital has responded to every major crisis it has faced in the last few decades. However, by identifying the main ideological instruments through which this orthodoxy is maintained – what we have called The British Myth – we can perhaps perceive potential ‘spaces of possibility’[27] that can be cracked open. That is to say, if institutions of ‘Britishness’ and the British state is the mechanism through which capitalist realism asserts itself on these islands, can we not aspire to simply do away with those institutions?

What is required, essentially, is a form of accelerationism – in the true meaning of this often-misused term – that pushes towards the scarce but potentially fruitful points of escape currently available to us. Our challenge, therefore, is not to ‘accelerate any or everything in capitalism willy-nilly, in the hope that capitalism will thereby collapse’, Fisher warns, but to ‘[accelerate] the process of destratification that capitalism cannot but obstruct.’ And so, in the same way that capitalism is a ‘”(failed) escape” from feudalism’[28], so too must we consider what an actual escape from capitalism – a post-capitalism – could and should look like. With this in mind, let’s consider this: we might not have the power to abolish or reform the institutions of British capitalism, but the lacunae of possibility bound up in notions of Wales and Welshness is precisely a point of rupture, a site of ‘egress’ through which we can exit them. The breaking of the union, and the concept of an independent Welsh state, in this formulation, can be one such ‘imperfect’ space of possibility: a radical means for utopian ends.

At this point, regardless of any ideological predilection towards national independence that we may or may not have, it looks to be the only option available to us. Attempts at a left politics that desires to make progressive reforms within the British nation-state – an apparently necessary function in order to gain any kind of parliamentary traction – have proven to be futile. There is little value in the left embracing any form of nationalism whose purpose isn’t engineering a point of rupture with British capitalism and imperialism. Of the many reasons the Corbynist project failed, the apparent impossibility of triangulating seemingly indestructible notions of British exceptionalism and national superiority with a democratic, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist politics is perhaps the most fundamental. Nothing progressive can be built, parasite-like, within this husk of British nationalist exceptionalism: it is incompatible with international solidarity, yet it is the only unique quality that The British Myth possesses.

It is clear to us now what the everyday consequences of this exceptionalism are: decades, if not centuries, of a mythos of national hubris are now haunting us thanks to The Virus. People in Wales have died because they are British. People in England have died because they are British. All over this archipelago, people have fallen victim to a deadly virus because of what The British Myth represents.

All on these islands will need to reject this Myth and its institutions for the good of our collective health, and will need to work together in this rejection: across nations, regions and borders of all granularities. In Scotland, it has long been clear that independence is their most potent point of egress. As Hatherley observes of 2014’s (ultimately failed, but surely only deferred) bid for independence, it was clear that:

‘most Yes voters were motivated by a desire to escape England’s political dominance – in other words, its inflicting of Tory governments – and were concentrated not in the traditional shires, but in Glasgow, Scotland’s biggest, most multiracial city. The appeal to ‘patriotism’ was interpreted by Yes voters – rightly or wrongly – as a call to social democracy.’[29]

This tendency has long been the one beacon – however superficial it often may seem – that devolved government in Wales has offered: a temporary (and of course ultimately insufficient) respite from Tory Britain. As Huw Williams notes:

‘devolution has inevitably meant that in today’s Broken Britain (finally this phrase has real currency) the most promising alternative for many has now become further distancing from a state that in the memory of millenials will have largely disappointed them. On a more positive note, it has also been remarked that the Senedd represents a genuine sense that politics can be done differently, and for those who have spent time in England the differences with respect to austerity, for example, highlight how the political culture of a more autonomous Wales might create far greater things.’

England faces a struggle far greater than that of Scotland’s or our own if it is to deconstruct, transgress or reject the weight of this Deep Englishness from which The British Myth has mutated. Such a project may – and probably should – be predicated on the breaking up of England altogether. In Wales, this project is somewhat simpler to imagine, if not in itself easier to achieve. As long as a distinct Welsh identity can be asserted in such a break-up, we can build a project centred on throwing off this destructive cultural condition and claim something better for ourselves.

The Welsh Virus

If we are to be optimistic, we can surmise that these qualities may already be latent in what could be identifiable as ‘Welsh culture’, in stark contrast to the British Myth’s perversion of these very same inherently human qualities. Laura McAllister suggests that during this crisis we have seen copious evidence of people in Wales having ‘organically recreated or re-energised community support’, and so any future society built in this image ‘has to be about us. All we have is each other and the collective potential to drive change’.

There is definite political value to be gleaned from such statements: if something positive is to come out of this, it must take a form that goes beyond a mere negation of Britishness to build a ‘Welshness’ that is politically meaningful. It must also be built ‘from below‘, harnessing these organic traits identified by McAllister. This is important anyway, but is given extra necessity due to the fact that no political party in Wales is currently equipped to agitate for the radical change we need. Welsh Labour’s failures are numerous and well documented, while the leadership of Plaid Cymru – although undoubtedly handling this crisis better than their Welsh Labour counterparts – are offering little beyond obvious truisms and entertaining the same economic orthodoxies that helped lead us here in the first place. Two ruptures are required: an exit from capitalism, an exit from Britishness. You can’t achieve anything without doing both, and no political party is even close to grasping this (though of course there is plenty of valuable thought in the grassroots of both parties from which our new movement can draw).

The form of Welshness we build must be communal, socialistic, exhibiting the qualities of an inherently working class culture of a society like Wales’, as identified by Gwyn Alf Williams:

‘At a human level, these men and women who were being shoveled like small coal over the face of their country were united only by fragile and intangible threads; by the kinship and community patterns of that seasonal-becoming-permanent migration which had become a Welsh way of life, by a diffuse sense of identity, by a new identity born of conflict, by the strengthening networks of Dissent with its travelling preachers….Central to that re-formation was a specifically working-class consciousness which fought its way through rebellion to acquire a brief but potent maturity.’[30]

The concept of Welshness here is not important because there’s anything inherently Welsh about these qualities, but precisely because it is not British. Beyond asserting a practical break with a state that clearly does not care for its interests, the political-cultural form this rejection takes needs to be incompatible with that Myth so it cannot be recuperated by it. Let us assert this oppositional strategy that Huw Williams identifies: ‘Unlike Britain as a nation-state, Wales still has within it a deep well of unity, solidarity and community spirit that can help us at a time like this.’

To truly achieve this, we will need to go not just beyond Britishness, but beyond Welshness, beyond capitalist interpellations of national and statist subjectivities. So too, as we reject Britishness, we must guard against the trap of romanticising the past, present or future of this bit of land we call Wales as containing unique or exceptional intrinsic values. This is a hangover from the thinking of British exceptionalism: the values we truly aspire to are universal and borderless. The Virus is not just a Welsh crisis, but a global, working class one. Welsh independence would simply be a first task in a long process, our first, tentative participation in a ‘patchwork’ of global working-class organising ‘that is inherently anti-nationalist and decolonial’.

Thus it must be acknowledged that any form of Welsh independence is merely an exit from that which prevents us from building an emancipatory politics: it is not the emancipatory politics itself. From this we can tease out the real meaning of ‘independence’, which has little to do with nationalist politics and more to do with a spirit of communitarianism, the desire for which is the primary necessitation of the very break with Britishness in the first place. An independence of sovereignty only has value to us insofar as it begets actually-existing independence of all kinds: independence of workers from employers, tenants from landlords, women from the patriarchy, people of colour from white supremacy, and on and on.

To return to Fisher, whose work has permeated this essay, one last time: in Acid Communism, his unfinished, posthumously published blueprint for an ‘exit strategy’ from capitalist realism, he distills the core purpose of what needs to be built if we are to escape our mounting catastrophes:

‘Instead of seeking to overcome capital, we should focus on what capital must always obstruct: the collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy.’[31]

This is the real ‘meaning’ of The Virus – these obstructed values are what we clearly collectively covet, despite capital ‘necessarily and always [blocking] the production of common wealth’.[32] We have proven our capacity for solidarity; the institutions that govern us have proven their capacity to destroy it. We have the volition to make this guilty system expire – now let us make our exit.


[1] James Meadway, ‘The Anti-Wartime Economy’

[2] Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (London: Verso, 2015), p. 3.

[3] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Winchester: Zero, 2009), p. 2.

[4] Ibid, p. 8.

[5] Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 67.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Mark Fisher, ‘No one is bored, everything is boring’ in K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004–2016), ed. by Darren Ambrose (London: Repeater Books, 2018), pp.549–550 (p. 550).

[8] Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, p. 9.

[9] David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), p. 343.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Umut Ozkirimli, ‘Coronationalism?’

[12] Ibid.

[13] Jean Baudrillard, ‘The Spirit of Terrorism’ in The Spirit of Terrorism, and Other Essays, trans. by Chris Turner (London: Verso, 2012), (pp.3-26), p.4.

[14] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Detroit: Black & Red, 1983), §4.

[15] Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, p. 4.

[16] Angus Calder, The Myth of The Blitz (London: Random House, 1992) [Kindle Edition].

[17] Owen Hatherley, The Ministry of Nostalgia (London: Verso, 2016), p. 12.

[18] Adam Ramsay, ‘Queen beckons Britain into Covid-nationalism trap’

[19] Calder, The Myth of The Blitz.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Jacques Ranciere, ‘Problems and Transformations of Critical Art in Aesthetics and its Discontents, trans. by Steven Corcoran (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009), pp.45–60. (p. 45).

[24] Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, p. 17.

[25] Matt Colquhoun, Egress: On Mourning, Melancholy and Mark Fisher (London: Repeater Books, 2020), p. 137.

[26] Srnicek and Williams, Inventing the Future, p. 130.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Colquhoun, Egress, p. 38.

[29] Hatherley, The Ministry of Nostalgia, p. 48.

[30] Gwyn A. Williams, When Was Wales? (London: Penguin, 1985), p. 182.

[31] Mark Fisher, ‘Acid Communism’ in K-Punk, pp.753–770 (p. 753).

[32] Ibid, p. 754.

One reply on “The British Virus”

  1. Thank you very much for this piece of work. An excellent read, probably well worth a second and third read. Would I insult you if I suggested we have discovered our very own Welsh Noam Chomsky?

Comments are closed.

The content of these articles does not necessarily convey the standpoints of Undod as a movement. We have chosen to publish a variety of items by people who support our principles as a movement in order to inspire and spur conversation.