ACTS OF DEFLECTION
The flood of 1953 cannot be, and was not, blamed on anybody. It was the result of natural forces, and in its immediate aftermath, the public and government rallied round to prevent further floods, fixing sea walls and flood defences by lugging huge quantities of sand to patch things up.
By contrast, when Tewkesbury and other areas of the Midlands and Western England were hit by floods in 2007, there were clearly people and policies to blame – water companies for not bothering to think about a back-up plan for its main Gloucestershire waterworks (which were on a flood plain), and the wholesale privatisation of utilities. And, again by contrast to 1953, the public was impotent to respond.
We see this in all walks of life. When a private company screws something up, the government is blamed for surrendering its powers over to the private sector. We saw it in the recent care home scandals – CQC was blamed for not regulating Winterbourne View vigorously enough, and the government was blamed for allowing Southern Care to operate on such flimsy financial foundations.
As Mark Fisher says in his book Capitalist Realism, “it has to be recognised that focus on government, like the focus on immoral individuals, is an act of deflection.” As a body politic, we seem to need a big state to blame when things go wrong, but we refuse to face up to the realities of the market system. Indeed, however much things go wrong, our faith in the efficiencies of the market seems to hold up pretty well. This is a contradiction we find it difficult to resolve, perhaps because “at the level of the political unconscious, it is impossible to accept that there are no overall controllers.” The essential of government today is to fill the symbolic hole created by the submission of public services to the market.
Fisher’s chapter on this phenomenon – entitled ‘There’s no central exchange’ – is perhaps the best summation of life in late capitalist society that I have read. He draws on Kafka, who he says “is poorly understood as exclusively a writer on totalitarianism; a decentralised, market Stalinist bureaucracy is far more Kafkaesque than one in which there is central authority.”
He compares K’s encounter with the telephone exchange in The Castle to our own experience of call centres: “the boredom and frustration punctuated by cheerily piped PR ... the building rage that must remain impotent because it can have no legitimate object, since – as is very quickly clear to the caller – there is no-one who knows, and no-one who could do anything if they could.”
We search and search for an explanation, for somebody who can solve our problem (and when, on the odd occasion, we get through to somebody who can actually help us, we raise them to the level of a saint). But this is almost always a wild goose chase – nobody can help us, because our problems are irrelevant to the corporations who provide us with a service. “The supreme genius of Kafka,” writes Fisher, “was to have explored the negative atheology proper to Capital: the centre is missing, but we cannot stop searching for it or positing it. It is not that there is nothing there – it is that what is there is not capable of exercising responsibility.”
Neoliberal theory would say: ok, if you’re unsatisfied with the service you’re getting, why not change provider? You’re probably not the only one, and if enough people reject an efficient company, that company will go under, to be replaced by a more capable outfit. We do not quite see it like this, because despite all the propaganda that is thrown at us, we still like to see ourselves as citizens rather than consumers. To which neoliberal theory would also say: well, that’s your fault for not taking responsibility.
“Taking responsibility” is today’s buzzphrase. We must look within ourselves and play our own individual part in making the world a better place. When things go wrong, it is always because individuals have failed to do this. This applies to us as consumer-citizens, and equally to bureaucrats and corporate players. “For this reason,” says Fisher, it is a mistake to rush to impose the individual ethical responsibility that the corporate structure deflects. This is the temptation of the ethical which, as Zizek has argued, the capitalist system is using in order to protect itself in the wake of the credit crisis – the blame will be put on supposedly pathological individuals, those ‘abusing the system’, rather than on the system itself.” To an extent, we have seen this happening in the News Corporation crisis, although there one really does get the sense of a “shadowy, centreless impersonality proper to corporate conspiracy.”
The notion of individual responsibility is also one that beleaguers well-meaning public servants who believe that they are immune to external influences and can, by sheer force of ethics, make a difference. “It is here that structure is palpable – you can practically see it taking people over, hear its deadened / deadening judgments speaking through them.” I agree – and I speak as a middle-ranking, well-meaning, public-sector bureaucrat.