Digging up the dead
It is the season for disinterring royal parasites. In Russia it was the Tsar. Here in Britain it is the Queen of Hearts.
In Russia they have dug up the Czar in order to rebury him with the blessing of a befrocked inmate from the Holy Asylum of Russian Orthodoxy. Oddly, this church took the view that these were probably not the Czar’s real bones-so they carried out the reburial more in the spirit of an alcoholic drinking the blood of Christ than with the respect that they would have given to genuine feudal despotism. In Britain, under Tony Blair’s very very modern government, Tsarism has been revived in solidarity with the Romanov dynasty. The “modernisers” have appointed a Drugs’ Tsar, and a Roads’ Tsar. Peter Mandelson has apparently asked nicely if he might one day become an Ottoman Emperor, even though he is so manifestly suited to the role of Rasputin.
In Britain it is the season for reliving the Death of England’s Truest Rose. On the basis that psychotic experiences are always best the second time round, the first anniversary of Di and Dodi’s demise down the Tunnel of Love is being celebrated in the manner that primitive tribespeople celebrated the coming of the rain god. Publishers are rushing over one another to produce the most trite and sugary memorial books. Few words, mainly pictures: a fair summary of her approach to life. Fading rock stars compete to perform in memory of the fallen goddess. A memorial garden has been planned for Kensington, although some of the odious residents of that district have protested that this will only bring crowds of awful common people to their patch. The Spencer Family, older in its aristocratic idleness than the Wolfgang-Come-Lately Windsors (aka Saxe-Coburgs), are milking public memory for all they can get; the hero of last year’s funeral, the slimy Earl, continues to promote the cult of Diana-worship in the manner of a man with the recipe for making hamburgers out of hamster droppings. The whole thing is manifestly distasteful. But-as the broadsheet feature writers say-What does it say about Britain in the late Nineties?
There was an awful lot of twaddle written last year about how the public reaction to the royal death was proof that British people are soft, gentle and know how to cry. British workers have actually known how to cry for quite a long time. Capitalism has a capacity to give plenty of exercise to the tear ducts of its victims. Even the Guardian, that mouthpiece of the liberal reformer’s conscience, published articles suggesting that the Left were spoilsports if they refused to join in the patriotic frenzy which followed the death of the Princess. One or two left-feminists then wrote to the newspaper declaring that at last they could feel as others around them did: yes, they wept, they sobbed, they commiserated with the poor Princes with only the grounds of Eton and several Palaces to console them-they, in short, were as sucked in by the spectacle as everybody else. Yesterday the poor miners and their destroyed pit villages; today the sad Princess; of perspective there was none.
Okay then, Marxist big-mouth, what precisely did this outburst of grief tell us about the condition of Britain and its population? Well, if you really want to know …
When millions of people feel alienated-politically, economically, psychologically-they are easy prey for spectacles inviting them to displace their feelings about themselves for someone or something else. It was tragically moving last summer to hear of people saying that they had grieved for the Princess more than for their own spouse or parents. They were not necessarily being insincere. Just as people who fail in life can enjoy the illusion of success by watching “their” leader win an election or “their” striker score a goal, so it is possible for a repressed ocean of feelings to flood out when it seems safe for people to weep in public. Many workers who grieved were crying for themselves: for their deprived lives and need to invest so much in a fairytale character whose wealth and privilege would never be their own. That she was a vulnerable being-like most of us-whose huge PR success was to manufacture an identity with the unprivileged that the haughty Queen has never even attempted, made the death seem like a personal loss to those alienated from their own personalities. For them, any distraction was more bearable than life as it is.
When people have nothing to say about life they indulge in the rituals of death. That is why burying people is now the main occupational activity of the religious. In Russia it is easier to remember the Romanovs than think about where the next dinner is coming from. In Britain it is easier for Blair to lead the weeping for a caring princess than to give a single penny more to single mothers or the disabled-who are having their benefits cut. When she was living Diana was perceived by most of the press as a pretty vacuous, self-righteous and self-indulgent figure of fun and with a little pity. From her nuisance calls to ex-lovers to her arrogant claim to be the only significant social worker in Britain (“a Queen of Hearts”, so help us), she was a living caricature of dim-but-niceness. Once she was dead the follies could be ignored and she could be used to symbolise all of the virtues so manifestly missing in those with any actual power.
National hysteria is nationalist hysteria. The flag-waving crowds on the day of the funeral were reminiscent of pictures from North Korea after the death of Kim-Il-Sung or China after Mao. How we scoffed at those gullible dupes as they paraded in the streets, forcing out patriotic songs through their tears. The more cynical believed that they were hired stooges, paid a few quid to weep in public. But the Di death squads in this country showed how easy it is for this kind of mania to spread even in the so-called advanced democracies. The nationalist illusion that UK plc is our company and its ruling elite are the head of our family is precisely the way that vast millions of workers have been kept in line ideologically over the decades of capitalist history-and earlier. The spectacle of the proles from “below stairs” sobbing into their Mcdonald cartons at the loss of a champagne-swigging aristocrat, who spent her last night at the Ritz in Paris before making her ill-fated journey in the presence of a drunk driver must have been music to the ears of the small minority who possess but do not produce. Far, far better to have the workers marching to the beat of the nationalist drum than behind a miners’ union band.
In fact, vast numbers of people were not in the least distraught by the death of the princess. The “public” that mourned as One Nation was, like all unified nations, an illusory construction. The vulgar way of creating this illusion is to lock of those who dissent from the position required by the public. This was what happened to heretics in the past who dared to question religion: they were beaten into submission, locked away or killed. The Russian Czars murdered numerous dissenters. (Will Yeltsin and the Orthodox Church be holding televised memorial services for them, incidentally?) In contemporary China there are literally millions of dissenters perishing in prison camps for the crime of refusing to act like the public their rulers require.
During the Diana madness last September there were many workers whose own lives were far more interesting to them than that of the royal leeches. They were rarely to be heard on the phone-in programmes (except to be demonised as unpatriotic, unfeeling freaks) and were never reported in the media. More than one person has reported to the present writer an actual fear of dissenting in public from the general hysteria. One woman, who was walking away from the funeral route towards the supermarket, said that she was sneered at by the gathering crowds as some sort of a traitor. Yet when she arrived at the supermarket there were plenty of people there. It is quite likely that the majority of us whose indifference to the affairs of the Houses of Windsor and Spencer were in a majority. But there were others determined to project an image of a nation stunned by grief.
It has been said by well-meaning leftists that, even though it might have been a diversionary exercise, the events of last year were an indication of how spontaneously people can create a popular movement. Well, apart from the fact that it may well have been less popular than it seemed, and was certainly not spontaneous, this probably tells us more about the Left’s idea of social change than how history can really be made. Certainly, if one’s idea of a movement is to have an iconic leader-be it Blair, Lenin, Thatcher or Di-followed by cheering masses (a wholly disparaging term for workers), then last summer’s funeral antics were a model of how to generate a mass movement.
The movement of the majority that socialists want will be rather different. No leaders, be they princesses or party chiefs, will have any role to play. No priests. No pathetic dribbling over the corpses of the dead. No mindless anthems or idiots’ flags. No followers. No police to keep us in line. Neither gods nor capitalists. That will a movement of the living; more liberating in every way than capitalism’s spectacles of the dead.