by Martin Odoni

Quite startling to realise that V For Vendetta, the movie adaptation of Alan Moore’s popular 1980’s comic strip, has already celebrated its fourteenth anniversary. As a film experience, it is a bit of a mixed bag, with some slightly stagy over-acting by some of the cast as they try desperately to give the production a feeling of Hollywood ‘epic-ness’, while Natalie Portman, playing Evey, clearly concentrates way too hard on sustaining an ‘English rose’ accent, meaning that she periodically forgets that she needs to act as well. (Which is a shame really, because when she is on her game, or at least when she is not in a Star Wars prequel, Portman is usually a very good actress.) Equally, the scripted attempt at portraying a bleak, totalitarian future, done to death by British media since at least the 1930s, at time comes across as eye-rollingly generic. Curfews, political rallies attended by right-wing fanatics dressed in all-black uniforms, the church abusing its re-established authority, violent and corrupt state police enforcers with a ‘kewl‘-sounding vernacular name, obvious and crude propaganda filling the airwaves twenty-four hours per day (in the real world, we call this phenomenon ‘the BBC News Channel‘), a relentlessly angry dictator thundering his commands to the world through a gargantuan television screen etc.

V For Vendetta plagiarises Nineteen Eighty Four

The late, great John Hurt appearing in both movies was probably meant to reinforce the idea of a tribute, but all it did in practice was help draw attention to all the stolen ideas.

All very standard and hackneyed by 2006, and had George Orwell somehow lived into the new millennium, I have no doubt he would have sued. Indeed, some of it would be pretty routine fare just for Dr Who. Overall, quite a lot of overcooked acting trying to compensate for some rather undercooked writing.

Given the film is only of moderate quality, it is perhaps surprising what a sizeable pop-culture footprint it has left, in particular the interest it created in the Gunpowder Plot. Outside of the UK, almost nobody would ever have heard of Guy Fawkes until this movie hit the cinemas. Nowadays, you have to uncover a hidden tribe, who have never encountered the rest of the human race, in the depths of a vast South American rain-forest, in order to meet someone who does not know about the Seventeenth-Century Catholic conspiracy to blow up Parliament. From late-2006, the Fawkes mask of the eponymous lead character suddenly became the world’s favourite ‘anarchist uniform’ (if that is not a contradiction-in-terms), and it remains a frequent sight at political gatherings even now. That Fawkes was in no way at all a democrat, and was fighting for the restoration of the Pope’s authoritarian control over England, not for liberty in any social or class sense, was completely skated-over by the movie, and is still missed even now by many people both in Britain and overseas.

Penny for the V

‘V For Vendetta’ was a rather under-cooked attempt at dystopian film-making, but I must give it its due; the “Penny for the guy” line was rather neat. It’s just a pity that over 99% of its audience wouldn’t have understood it.

One aspect of note is the character of V himself. In the original comic, he was an anarchist. Here, perhaps playing to the US audience, he comes across as a more general freedom-fighter, albeit a ruthless one. One noticeable pattern in V’s general behaviour, especially when talking to Evey, is his habit of offering ‘pearls-of-wisdom’, and one of them has proven particularly popular down the years; –

“People should not be afraid of their Governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.”

And yes, it is a very appealing soundbite. A good slogan perhaps, very catchy, even a little Yoda-like.

Unfortunately, it is not true. And as Jonathan Cook points out in his latest excellent article, people all around the world are poised to face a lot of very frightened Governments indeed – ones that I daresay will only-too-readily prove V wrong. And yes, that very much includes Governments in Britain and the USA.

The problem with Governments that are afraid of their people is that they start behaving towards them in a very suspicious, intrusive and intolerant manner. Paranoia as to who ‘the-enemy-within’ might be leads Governments to increasing surveillance of their own population, to restrict free movement, to clamp down with excessive force on minor transgressions, and to regard any political opposition with great resentment and hostility.

While it is true that a people who are scared of their Government is not desirable either, it is always healthy that people should be skeptical of their Government, and not too trusting of it. But the pertinent point is that, like the cornered tiger of metaphor, the last thing anybody should want is a Government that is scared of its people.

If we look at the current developments with the Coronavirus CoVid-19, there is much to be both skeptical and scared of about the way the UK Government may choose to behave. Most worrisome are some of the clauses in the Coronavirus Bill.  The powers it gives the sitting Government are quite unprecedented in centuries, and they will last for two years, which seems likely to be roughly double the time the pandemic crisis will last. That is disturbingly excessive, especially as, in the event that the crisis lasts longer than twelve months, a new Bill to renew the powers could simply be tabled then. Why is Boris Johnson in such a hurry to secure an extra year of extraordinary powers?

The current ‘lockdown’, which I must reiterate I do believe is necessary and correct, even if it has been implemented in a very slapdash way, is another device that could easily be abused. Given the under-staffing I mentioned the other day of the police force, and the stress officers must therefore be under to try and restrict the movements of over sixty-six million people, the temptation to take ‘short-cuts’ must be immense.

When will the lockdown be formally lifted? Beyond very vague descriptions of “When the crisis is over” – always left undefined – we do not know.

What we do know is that Johnson is almost completely divorced from the concepts of right and wrong, and in his short time so far as Prime Minister, has already triggered a massive Constitutional crisis in his attempts to get his own way. We must, as I stated a few days ago, be ready for a fresh struggle to make sure that Johnson relinquishes those powers when there is no further need for him to hold them.

It is most important that people around the world are vigilant, because the current crisis has its upside. It has exposed the shallow illusion of capitalism, and particularly neoliberalism. The ideology is largely a naive exercise in dismantling the state in the belief that it ‘un-tethers’ the economy. In truth, the historic pattern has simply been to ‘de-democratise’ the country; as more and more of the country’s structures are sold off, less and less has been answerable to a state that is in turn, at least in principle, answerable to the people.

But more serious than that is that a toxic mixture of Thatcherism, Blairism and ‘Cameronism’ has more or less left the state so self-maimed that it is almost powerless in many situations for which it was once equipped. This is one of them.

The NHS, butchered by years of cynical under-funding and stretched to the limits by under-staffing, is already overwhelmed by the early demands of the pandemic. It is terrifying to speculate what will happen when the virus hits ‘critical mass’ in the UK over the next couple of weeks.

There are nowhere near enough ventilators, nowhere near enough supplies of Personal Protective Equipment for medical workers on the front line, because the Government has spent years restricting NHS budgets, forcing hospitals to choose between different needs, rather than cover all of them. A short-term cut in spending that will now be massively out-sized by the enormous bill for applying treatments after the illness has been allowed to get a lot worse. And more overstretch too, as medical workers are needlessly exposed to the virus and contract it themselves, meaning they are added to the long list of patients receiving treatment, and removed from the list of medics available to administer it.

Boris Johnson has called a nationwide lockdown. There are nowhere near enough police to enforce it. Probably, we need ten times more officers than the puny approximate one hundred and twenty four thousand currently battling just to maintain a typical level of law-and-order.

Large numbers of people are now losing their incomes, due to the lockdown closing their places of work. The only way for many of them to get money just to live on in this modern era of a ‘simplified’ (transl.: ‘reduced’) welfare system is the infernal Universal Credit. But there are nowhere near enough staff at the Department of Work & Pensions to handle the sudden ultra-spike in demand, with phone queues frequently extending into the tens of thousands.

The Government had an office at the Department of Health specially tasked with preparedness for pandemics. The Tories closed it in 2011!

The list of examples is enormous, but the above are key ones, most pertinent to the CoVid-19 crisis. Neoliberalism has taken away every weapon in the Government’s arsenal that might have mitigated the pandemic’s effects on society and the economy. It does not help that we have narcissistic salesmen, with no expertise in anything except self-promotion, heading up Governments in both Britain and the USA. But if the old structures had at least remained in place, a lot of them could have functioned pretty well automatically without needing any substantial direction from Downing Street or the White House at all. The result of these structures being downgraded or removed or out-sourced is that the legislators now have to figure out what needs to be done and order it before anything will happen. It can only ask the private firms that have taken over much of the duties to help, leaving itself at the mercy of such firms, who will likely take advantage by setting harsh terms. And if the top legislators are utter buffoons, like the Beavis ‘n’ Butthead double-act of Trump-‘n’-Boris, they will have no idea what is needed, and will make the sort of breathtaking mistakes that we have seen over the last three weeks on both sides of the Atlantic.

Social democracy is better than neoliberalism

We would have been able to mitigate the pandemic so much more if we had just spent a bit of extra money here and there to maintain our protections.

This leads not only to disaster and needless suffering for countless people, it also leads to a false economy, as the expense of treating those with severe cases of CoVid-19 soon massively outstrips the previous savings brought about by not having adequate containment, staffing numbers or equipment.

In some ways, it is somewhat amusing, and satisfying, to see how completely the Tories have given in to the reality of the situation. What they have done, at least in terms of practice if not in aim, is in effect implement a socialist/social democratic remodelling of the economy, for the duration of the crisis. With vast numbers of people now having to stay at home instead of working, and most employers unable to cover their wages when doing no business, the Government has been forced to do an Edward-Heath-style ‘U-turn’, and intervene directly in the UK economy on a scale not seen since the 1970s. It is paying large numbers of people’s wages, just so that enough of them can carry on buying goods to keep the economy from collapsing entirely. Between this and the UK’s hesitant half-step out of the European Union, our economy is now remarkably similar to the so-called ‘Norwegian Model‘ – leaning well to the left of centre, and the state keeping money circulating when the markets cannot. Ideologically, this is as far-removed from the current Tories as Heath’s mind-boggling ‘Dash-For-Growthprogram of 1973 was from his own Election Manifesto of just three years earlier. The UK is suddenly a near-socialist country, a three-month U-turn in itself, since it is only just over three months since these same ideas were foolishly rejected at the ballot box. After all he has been through, who can begrudge Jeremy Corbyn his satisfied ‘I-told-you-so!’ moment?

The danger in all this is that we need to understand that this is meant to be entirely temporary. Johnson, a man who has called for the privatisation of the NHS itself in his time, will certainly not want to keep a left-leaning system of social democracy in place beyond the pandemic, even though the crisis has demonstrated how much it is needed. And here is the point that makes Johnson a danger; when people see social democracy in action, they will learn that not only does it not bring about ‘stagnation’ and ‘national bankruptcy’, as the anti-1970s urban mythology would have us believe. In fact, it has kept the country alive, re-stabilising the economy when it was heading into free-fall, and will prove beneficial to many people abandoned by the neoliberal set-up. This realisation will terrify the Government, and the elite more widely.

When the metaphorical genie is out of the bottle, the fearful Johnson will fight tooth-nail-knuckle-and-elbow to force it back in. That is when the emergency powers the Coronavirus Bill will grant will become a terrible danger. They give him the ability to outlaw many forms of peaceful and legitimate opposition. He will lie, cheat, and bully, as he has always done, to force the country back into its neoliberal dystopia. This is why we do not want a Government that is scared of its people.

Interestingly, the aforementioned V For Vendetta portrayed the dictatorship of the ‘Norsefire Party’ – an extreme right-wing break-off from the Conservative Party – as coming about because of a pandemic that terrified the population into submission. The plague was blamed on minorities. Given where we are now, the movie may be more prescient than it sometimes gets credit for. Beyond doubt, after the dust has settled, the Tories will exploit the terrible difficulty the NHS has had fighting the pandemic, using it as a pretext for saying, “Look this nationalised system just isn’t working,” and then sell off the last of it with all the cynicism avarice can bring. All mention of how the NHS is almost certainly blameless on every level for this crisis, and how privatisation has, for reasons outlined above, played a substantial role in making the pandemic uncontrollable, will simply be shouted down.

Yes, the CoVid-19 pandemic does have an upside, in that it has demonstrated an economic truth that the political elite have tried to make unthinkable for generations. That will be of little consolation to those who have lost loved ones to the disease, but it has re-opened the door that appeared to have been closed for another generation with Corbyn’s defeat in December. But for this second opportunity to be taken, we cannot allow the Conservatives, or the Blairite/Brownite infestation in the Labour Party, to stifle all discussion of it. If they are afraid enough, they will use force to do so.

We have to be prepared for a potentially-violent pushback from a Government that will have a lot more unaccountable power than any administration should be allowed to wield, and enough fear of its people to use it.

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POSTSCRIPT:

News has broken while I was writing this that Boris Johnson has gone down with the virus. In expressing my sincere hopes for his eventual recovery, I would just like to say to the Prime Minister a heartfelt, “Take it on the chin.”

Take it on the chin, Boris

Hey, BoJob, you wanted to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of people by asking the nation to take it on the chin. Now you get an idea of what that entails.