This isn't a Virus, it's a Time Machine

By Benedict Seymour, 16 May 2020
Image: Still from Dead the End (2017), a film by Benedict Seymour.

In a 2015 London Review of Books essay Fredric Jameson briefly imagines the Bolshevik Party as a kind of time machine. The party is a device by means of which Leninist revolutionaries effect a collective leap into the future:


[H.G.] Wells’s formal innovation … lay in his shifting of the reader’s attention to a technological substitute for the missing historical transition, namely the time machine. (We might argue that the party was Lenin’s analogous innovation in the realm of political strategy).[1]


If the party staged interruptions in the linear, empty time of industrial capitalism, or at least put the conveyor belt into fast forward, these would be temporal events of acceleration freeing us from the old, breaking us from the feudal past, opening up a future of self-determination.


Today in the UK (and beyond), we are undergoing first Brexit and now Covid as contemporary time machines that really do produce temporal leaps – even if their temporality, which comes on punctual (‘Take back control!’), ends up leaving behind it an endless smear of bureaucracy and technocracy (‘Get it done’, chapters 1 to n). But these time machines are regressive, not progressive: they effect a rapid leap backward – even if this retrogression is absolutely novel.[2] In political and social-reproductive terms these two successive shocks have been coups for a reactionary movement, not least where they have most emphasised their focus on the future. Wherever Tories invoke the ‘state of the art’, for example behavioural (pseudo-) science, in which the hypothesis of ‘herd immunity’ serves to return us to racist eugenics, they always set the controls for the heart of darkness, neo-reaction, cutting edge disaster. Brexit was a kind of far-right coup or contemporary ‘Reichstag fire’ that delivered a fast forward into the past, politically, laying out a new set of terms for the ruling class and the ruled. It managed potential anti-capitalist sentiment in a racialised and technocratic direction, turning righteous hatred of Blairites and Tories alike into something toxic and regressive and so containing and inverting its implicit threat to the system. The Brexit ‘choice’ congealed anger into anti-migrant, late colonialist resentment, an elegant ideological device to suppress a burgeoning sense of class hatred, by pitting proles against each other along lines of age and race. So, the embittered white ‘boomer’ male booms on about the migrants, the woke, the snowflakes and red tape, NOT the bosses, the borders, the Blairites’ attack on social reproduction over decades of cuts to services, subsidies, benefits, etc.[3]


Moving on from the Brexit event to the Covid event, the UK state was always going to be crucial in dealing with a pandemic, there could be no self-organised, grassroots response in the current desperately fucked socio-political circumstances (though compare and contrast Hong Kong or Kerala’s pandemic response to get a sense of how things could be). However, under Johnson’s Tory party, and specifically the Dominic Cummings dominated cabinet, dealing with Covid means a de facto and tacit assault on the working class in the UK that is as racist and necropolitical as it is nerdy and wonkish. It has plenty of room for self-organisation as long as it is decoupled from any antagonism to capital. From herd immunity to… eternity, Covid becomes the pretext not for the libertarians’ nightmare of perma-lockdown, but rather for expanded and radicalised laissez-faire: a fake lockdown and real squeeze on workers precisely through the unstated but implicit imperative to continue working (if you’re poor).


The two great disasters come in rapid succession and manage somehow to fulfill the question many of us began 2020 with: how can capitalism possibly beat 2019 for horror? Together Brexit and the Tory response to Coronavirus add up to a Bannonite great leap backward, a brand new old, as Brecht might say: instead of ‘electrification plus soviets’, Lenin’s formula for communism, we have digitalisation minus representation and social reproduction. Tory pandemic management creates a massive opportunity for profiteering dotcoms and far-right app mongers to become permanent parts of the social reproductive infrastructure of the UK (most egregiously, the non-competitively tendered Palantir contract for the NHS data project). This coincides with the imminent subtraction of public services, compression of wages, and destruction of the (re)production of the collective worker in the form of Higher Education (goodbye humanities, and universities more generally; not to mention the implosion of the cultural industries; what Marx calls the moral component of the wage is about to get mashed all over again, making the 2008 compression look like a mild flu compared to this social covid).


Of course we aren’t there yet, we’re still in the phase of mass homicide and mass graves. But clearly this is a radicalisation of what Brexit already implied. This isn’t just a case of manipulating the terms of discussion anymore, and never was for anyone following through the policy stakes of Brexit. Like the normalisation of racism implicit in the Brexit injunction to ‘take back control’ of our borders and working lives from the Brussels bureaucrats, more deaths for more non-British and non-white people was always hardwired into the smart policies of the new far-right. Conservative policy on lockdown (a mockdown, a mockery in which black and brown workers continue to go to work to sustain the reproduction of the safely insulated white middle class minority) will now segue into a larger triage of the population to come. First they have elected to let the old and poor and black die under their chaotic, miserly, and yet massively expensive approach to the virus. As ever a logistical disaster is combined with increased powers for the state, while its responsibility is further diminished and devolved onto the population: it’s up to US to protect ourselves against its de facto injunction to return to work; the dull compulsion of the economic does the job which a direct ideological command could never do, and seems to take out all opposition.


The Tories will move on logically from eliminating older and vulnerable working class people by a form of systematic negligence – a planless plan to take out the elderly albeit one explicitly announced by some Tory voices in their Twitter dreaming – to the rapid and disaster-naturalised contraction of the ‘life chances’ of the rest of the working class in Britain. The young are effectively being taught the value of the life of an elderly prole in this country, contributing to the coming re-set of the value of labour-power in general. It’s a form of pedagogy of the working class as effective and timely as the pedagogy of the gallows which, after the enclosures brought the poor to the cities and towns, disciplined them and kicked off capitalism (see Linebaugh’s great and ever too relevant The London Hanged). The public hanging of working class people in the early 18th century showed the urban poor the cost of disobedience and helped set the price of labour using a theatre of death. Today the homicide is concealed, hushed up, buried as much as possible in statistics and logistics, but the reality sinks in nonetheless, and without (as yet) stirring too much of a sense of indignation: behind the sense of a massive muddle is the awareness that many of us are expendable. The Tories revel in helplessness and uselessness and make it the model for all our behavior. The behaviourist nudge is always a softened form of power, or command, but the nudge of nudges or uber-nudge commands that we too should assume a kind of resigned passivity before and within systematic incompetence. Such is the pedagogy of mass death in the care homes and it persists in the general chaos of work on the shop floor inhabited by the ‘essential worker’, all those public-private concerns still in operation, from the Royal Mail to the NHS. A combination of ours not to reason why and the heroism – read nihilism – of keeping calm and carrying on while being responsibilised for your own destruction. As a Royal Mail manager vocally indignant about his superiors put it to me, ‘it’s the blind leading the blind’. (Speak for yourself, I replied). In general, Blitz Spirit and war time style mobilisation continues and deepens the Brexit recalibration of the price of the wage via the terms of politics and of social existence.


Beginning with the civil service and the population whose reproduction has traditionally been its concern, another massive wave of cuts is imminent in the name of ‘doing our bit’, while continuing the endless anthem of ‘freedom’ which is the signature tune of the global far right. First they liberated us from red tape and migrants and political correctness, then they set us free to deal with death in our own (rented) homes; free from the misery of hospital or the noisome constraints of Personal Protective Equipment, now they are coming from the remaining drags on our infinite emancipation.


All this was already lined up by Cummings and co. as part of the Brexit agenda: now it has the momentum or inertia of the inevitable; it simply is the case that a lot of companies must collapse, and bail outs just aren’t possible for everyone (Palantir, a far-right global dotcom will be subsidised NOT the welfare and reproduction of the mass of British labour). It simply is the case that dotcoms must step in, and we must all do our bit, to get some kind of economy whirring again. It just is the case we have to go back to some kind of work, because lockdown can’t last forever (not least because it never really began). After paying the furlough of a predominantly middle-class slice of this population, it will very soon be time to take the costs back out of labour’s hide, to use Marx’s terms. In principle, with the invocation of metaphors of war (not yet war with Europe or China, but at least a rehearsal with the Virus) all this retrogression has been accomplished already under the guise of a public health emergency. It is made barely tolerable for now by means of a ‘Big Society’ vibe and the weekly clap-in, but soon ‘we're all in it together’ will segue into the official normalisation of third world conditions in a former ‘advanced’ nation – both for existing members of the casualised working class and those just waking up to the reality that they never really were the lifetime academic professionals celebrated in the official Higher Education literature.[4] Hymns of praise to the student experience will now dissolve into the injunction to ‘Evolve’ or, as the economic crisis in the sector worsens and the State makes it clear there is to be no bail out, to simply survive.


Every university (management) was already an avant garde of retrogression, the wonkish captains of socially distanced space ships just itching to jump backward at lightspeed from scholarly abstraction into ruthless vocationalisation (i.e. the decay of any academic function not directly related to immediate-term returns for the consumer/product of the ‘student experience’). However, if HoDs in Humanities subjects often took a ‘no strikes please, we’re professionals’ approach, the majority of those doing the work of teaching did get the news of how their dues were being used long before now. Nonetheless, the present moment of accelerated atrophy has zoomed in at light speed thanks to the combo of Covid, Cummings and not so novel Michael Gove.


If Brexit was the formal commitment to resumption of hostilities between European capitalists, the end of ‘red tape’ (some minimal commitment to reproduction of the class of labour), Covid and the ‘powered by love’ moment of social reproduction we are going through heralds a massification of precarity in which a portion of the (reflated) middle class are finally made to dissolve into the lumpen proletariat – beginning with a trial season in the fields for the recently furloughed (‘It’s better than sitting home and watching Netflix’, they post-rationalise, ‘If life gives you lemons…’ etc.). The crowd funding begging messages from former academics begin to accumulate on the virtual carpet beneath your inbox. The end of the inter-capitalist commitment to trade without shooting each other, and minimal commitment to free movement of labour within Europe, is about to be supplemented by a second leap backward: the end of mass Higher Education beginning with the collapse of the humanities. This is no time for Bartlebys or Ishmaels, however. To fight proletarianisation, we will have to do more than prefer not to or carp about how what we make could never be described as a commodity; we will have to fight AS workers alongside our comrades at every level of the academic institution. No more division by professional stratification: collective action across the university and the wider (remains of the) public sector will be necessary if the leap backward is to be decelerated let alone reversed. We’ll see how fast people can learn a different kind of pedagogy in the months to come – a pedagogy against the return to the gallows, by and for the oppressed.


Postscript: The Dictatorship of Confusion

The Nazi battle cry 'Germany awake!' hides its very opposite  – Adorno.


Go back to work, but be alert – so ran Boris’s address at the beginning of the week, ‘encouraging’ everyone, including those in the most dangerous sectors such as construction, to get back in harness. ‘See it Say it Sorted’ (the TfL network’s anti-terror command to vigilance) had suddenly segued into a surreal injunction to be as careful but also as lethal as possible: See it, Sniff it, Snuff it, you might say. Johnson’s confusionism only facilitated this accelerated policy rewind. At the level of content this now parsed as: take back control, go back to work, return to herd immunity – and what the epidemiologists tastefully call harvesting. [The Guardian, 8 May 2020,] Wrapped in more contradictions than an essay by Mao, the confusion was actually enabling and indeed contagiousness, since all who submit to the command are also absolved of responsibility for doing so. It’s a novel form of passing the buck while at the same time holding a population to account: you should go to work but if you die it’s your own fault for not being sufficiently alert. The fascism of our times becomes macro by division (of populations), subtraction (of subsidies) and multiplication (of ‘opportunities’ and imponderables). Any decision is clouded by a swarm of options and opinions (that’s just your opinion, they say to anyone who quarrels with the dominant conformism). Contradiction allows the baseline dictat to come over unopposed, lubricated by a shrug. This is death by a thousand nudges, and confusion is its mode: confusion means the subject of the confusers can also claim confusion. When ‘confused’ young people broach social distancing in a newly crowded work cafeteria they can say with some sincerity and authority: ‘but you don’t observe social distancing here.’ They have a point; the managers are not enabling or enforcing it, only piling up excuses. We end up colluding in each other’s contribution to the mass homicide (though in Hong Kong there is news of how, with a mass self-organised movement and a state willing to lockdown, things can go very differently). Confusion is the new national consciousness – you have made it to the volk when you too can confusedly devolve responsibility, just like the fuehrer. You could sincerely claim confusion while accepting the ‘go to work and (or) die’ injunction. It is certainly the model for managers who count on an ‘ours not to reason why’ willingness to obey among those they push around for an extra £5-10 and hour on the death camp pay scale (remember the sonderkommando; it was already like that but one doesn’t wish to fall foul of Godwin’s law so we don’t talk about it much).


How does such confusion gestate, and is it ‘deliberate’? The far right today operates as a kind of enigma to itself, and is internally split and variegated. The entire media now says ‘Johnson is confusing, and confused’; and probably he and his party are sincerely confused, since to Johnson’s right there are hawks who have been screeching for more blood, more work, ever since lockdown began. They have always wanted business as usual, and a ‘thinning’ of the herd of the elderly and vulnerable – revenue draining human livestock.[5] Johnson and even Cummings have flip-flopped from their initial position, via a burst of the virus and an expensive love- and labour-consuming trip through intensive care, to assume a more pro-lockdown attitude. They are sincerely into your going back to work but also on managing the bad press created by unnecessarily killing lots of people in the process.


The current popular sense of chaos is at once a threatening scandal, and a reassurance that everyone is still cool with being utterly confused and more or less in despair – depending on how non-white working class they are. (I notice white middle age proletarian males wearing masks now who weeks earlier would literally punch you for suggesting they were of any use, so even there one senses a recalibration of the reigning confusions). The media are happy to feast on tasty ‘hypocrisies’ and contradiction as it deflects from the overall impending assault on social reproduction. Piers Morgan, Janet Street Porter and Philip Scholfield form a coalition of the unwatchable to call out the government – they’re mad as hell and won’t take it anymore! This only serves to normalise the severity of the government’s response, however. Tory confusionism is effective because it’s changed the subject from the insanity of the overall non-plan to quibbling over the (wrong) details. It’s Britain, nation of weapon inspectors, once again, though this time death is coming home: Give me charts I can read! Give me a command I can obey in the assurance that it is purely technical and you can bomb – or force back to the death factories – all the poor POC you want! It’s time we spelled it out: confusion is death, resistance is collective and will have to be self-organised in the apparent absence of any viable representation – party political or otherwise.


Benedict Seymour is a critical worker based in London



[1] 'In Hyperspace', Fredric Jameson, London Review of Books, 10 September 2015,

[2]  Of course, pace Walter Benjamin, there is no such thing as homogenous empty time, history is not a railway running from past to future, and it is unhistorical to posit anything that happens as a true ‘return to’ or literal ‘slide backwards’. Nonetheless, the suspect fictitious device of the time machine manages to convey a sense of historical difference and open up new perspectives through its speculative estrangements. By analogy, those who have lived through the post-neoliberal Events of our time may grasp these moments’ truth in terms of a temporalising fiction: the customary expectations a certain tranche of history – already long under attack – are suddenly diminished, seemingly at a stroke. We subjects of the Brexit and Covid Events can experience the lurch of what feels like dystopian science fiction (and or disaster film) into really existing actuality, however distended and ramified the process (Brexit), as a genuinely retrogressive movement, a qualitative shift which, relative to what had become customary (whether in terms of wages, conditions, subsidies or political hopes and visions), represents a chronic if never literally chronological move ‘backwards’. Backwards really means a movement downward, down to a lower level of what passes for social reason and social reproduction. It’s as if the ‘general intellect’ or ‘social brain’ were suffering a series of strokes: catastrophe is the mode of ‘going forward’ in fascist societies: something is taking its course. But more concretely, and in a manner that is not at all fictitious, the really existing time machine moments we are living through are about recalibrating the ‘socially necessary labour time for the reproduction of the collective worker’ – and hence recalibrating society as a whole. Understood in these terms, ‘backward’ means the lowering of the wage, and hence the value of the workers’ time – a value always subtended by the price of (their) lives). Things are moving so fast, and the process is being managed in such a usefully idiotic, ‘confused’ way that the way up and the way down may appear the same. Backward may seem to mean ‘a return to social democracy’ or even socialism, as many have asserted and will assert in the coming months. You can focus on Sunak’s ‘bail out’ of small businesses and their employees, right now, and argue that we are going ‘back to the (social democratic) future’. That’s understandable but wrong once you are allowed to read the terms and conditions. According to a leaked policy proposal the Tories are already discussing raising the basic rate of tax for the poorest workers, welfare and spending cuts, etc. [The Telegraph, 20 May 2020:] Holding on to the suspect device of a great leap backward is probably a better guide to the emerging empirical reality than any too punctual attention to any particular day’s headlines. By definition these sudden unforeseen events congeal into their own sprawl, it’s all part of the texture and structure of the disaster: these are leaps that last. Rather than invoking then disappointing initial revolutionary expectations, the time machines of our time take a reactionary initial spasm (the pseudo-escape and fake emancipation of Brexit; the desire for a rapid ‘return to normality’ with Covid) and turn it into a truly enduring contraction – social, political, moral, economic. This continues and deepens the subtraction and retraction of rights, subsidies, minimal mitigations of the force of capital’s imperatives.

[3] This is partly because the boomer bloke voted Blair and cannot bear to think he might be in some way responsible for his own undoing when the previous set of ‘d:reams’ for national regeneration turned to shit; he suddenly discovers that diversity is just a lie, and blames the council for taking away his council flat and giving it to ‘foreigners’; he tends to forget about class, because that would make him question his initial youthful indifference to anything ‘political’ and his confidence in the myth of self-made prosperity. The ordinary bloke booms at the woke because he is fighting off awareness that all along he has been alone and asleep at the wheel.


[4] To be fair to academics, everything about zero hours teaching makes this clear enough to the increasingly contractually insecure educational operative. However, their ability to organise has been hampered by academic unions’ submission to the interests and self-image of the tenured STEM-dwelling upper tiers of the university. There was no lack of annoyance and awareness on the part of those trying tenuously to remain within the profession, whether casualised or facing casualisation.