Happy might be an overstatement – while there’s some catharsis in seeing butchers like Johnson bite it off the back of their own hubris, ultimately it wouldn’t help those who still suffer at the hands of his toxic party and ideology. That said, the world would undoubtedly be a better place had Johnson never existed, and I daresay will in the future be a better place if he ceases to exist. This probably seems cruel, callous, and unkind. In some ways it is, but now that’s out the way, I want to spend the rest of the article explaining myself.
There’s a tendency at the political extremes to shy away from giving full, detailed and frank explanations of our more controversial political opinions. Many put this down to an inability to do so, alienation from the mainstream or even laziness, but the truth is that a lot of entrenched political positions are arrived at via long periods of learning and experience. Therefore when you’re asked to explain a position which may seem extremely radical without any of this background, it can be daunting – where to start? Sometimes it can even be difficult to know yourself exactly how you came to hold a position. It’s really hard to compress years, decades even, of learning into a concise answer as to why you hold a position, and sometimes its easier not to bother.
This article is basically an attempt at that. I don’t want to go into the absolute shit ton of competing factors as to why I ultimately won’t mourn Boris Johnson if he croaks it, so I’ll focus on what I feel is the main one: structural violence. What is violence? You probably think immediately of someone being shot, stabbed, punched – a fight, or a war. Whatever you thought of, I bet it involved a person somehow causing gruesome physical harm to another person. We all seem to agree on that. What about locking someone in a room without food? I’d argue this does more harm than many of the violent acts mentioned previously, and it’s certainly still a human being doing something physically terrible to another, just by another means and without direct contact.
Now let’s imagine someone who isn’t locked in a room per se, but struggles to get out of the house for whatever reason. There is no bogeyman in this example – no one is targetting this person specifically. For years they’ve managed to get by with some money from the government to make up for the fact that they can’t work. What if someone was to come round every time that payment came in and force them to transfer it to the intruder’s bank account? Violence? I’d say so. It wasn’t much anyway and now they find they can’t even access that.
What if no one came round, and the payments just stopped? Violence? What if they stopped not because some evil individual decided to victimise this specific vulnerable person, but because a large group of people, many miles away, had made a decision based on their view of costs and benefits that this money was no longer being used as well as it could be? Violence? What if they’d made that decision without any consideration for this individual case, but using certain criteria, criteria which our individual no longer met? Is that violence? The outcome is the same. It doesn’t matter to a vulnerable person whether someone comes to their door and forces a bank transfer on them, or whether that money just stops arriving – they still don’t get it. They still suffer in its absence.
The most recent well publicised case of this involved the death by starvation of Errol Graham. He left a note, asking that he be judged fairly by the Department for Work and Pensions after his benefits were cut off. He died shortly afterwards with an empty belly and a couple of old tins of fish in his cupboard. Cases like this are not uncommon. For every death, there are thousands who suffer, making choices no parent, no person, should have to make. Food or heating; clothes or transport. This is structural violence. It can’t be traced to one person doing one violent act on another, but a wider system, contributed to by many, which gives and takes away with varying levels of concern for the well-being of those whose lives it affects. There’s even an argument to be made that structural violence is more damaging than direct violence – if a scary intruder comes to your house and steals your money there is at least a tangible threat and with that a tangible course of action to take. If it just stops coming, where do you go? You can’t lock the door against government policy. You can’t stay at your mate’s or call the police against a minister for toughening benefits sanctions or lowering the threshold for ‘fit for work’.
This is exactly what has been happening for ten years. From people like Errol to the thousands we’ve lost to mental illness in the wake of mental health provisions being gutted via the millions forced to make inhumane choices day after day, people have been suffering extreme forms of structural violence at the hands of the government and its extreme, neo-liberal capitalist policy. At the hands of the Conservatives, at the hands of the right wing media and corporate lobbies, and ultimately at the hands of Johnson and others like him.
Austerity has been directly linked by the British Medical Journal to at least 120,000 excess deaths. These will not have been pleasant deaths surrounded by flowers and family, but deaths borne out of a lack of people, equipment, beds, time, and ultimately money. Deaths far more violent and unpleasant than what Johnson could be facing. Between 2012 and 2019, the number of children living in relative poverty in the UK rose by 600,000. It’s easy to forget the faces and voices of individuals when faced with such daunting numbers. It’s easier still to abstract this violence from the people ultimately responsible for it.
Likewise, years of prioritising economic growth for those at the top over care for those at the bottom has set the stage for the COVID-19 crisis to unfold in the catastrophic way it is. When you take any and all slack out of the system, it buckles as soon as any extra stress is applied, and that is exactly what’s happening. When you delay your response to a crisis to soften the effects on the economy, you worsen the human cost of the crisis – you inflict structural violence on strangers. When you hold off on ordering ventilators from the small companies that specialise in manufacturing them so that the contract can be given to one of your biggest donors, as is happening with Dyson, you put money and power over human beings. This is structural violence, and it’s what Boris and his colleagues have been inflicting on the people of the UK for a decade.
One of the greatest cruelties of structural violence is the inequality of its application. Johnson (along with many others both inside and out of the Tory party) may have ensured through decades of ideological warfare and policy making that there aren’t enough ventilators, PPE, or beds to go around for anyone else, but this dearth of what’s needed won’t touch him in his hour of need. If Johnson does shuffle off the mortal coil, it won’t be for want of equipment or staffing – he’s insulated from all that by his power and wealth. If he goes, it’s because COVID-19 is truly novel. It seems, unlike almost every single other risk factor to human life, to not care whether you’re rich or poor. That’s not to say it won’t still affect the lives of less privileged people far worse, as every crisis does; just that the elite aren’t quite as impervious to its effects. He’s getting the best of the best, as he always has, it’s just that this time the best humanity can do may not be enough for him. This isn’t justice, and it isn’t poetic. There’d be nothing beautiful about his death – it would bring no one back and do little to ease any suffering. It would not in any real way change the wider system which he and his networks toil to prop up. It would only erase from this Earth a man who’s knowingly caused so much harm to so many and been rewarded for it his entire life. It would bring only a strange, grim catharsis to those of us who’ve followed closely the effects of his party and its policies. Anyone who would see it as any real victory, anything of substance, is deluded.
But this article isn’t really about whether Boris Johnson lives or dies or how you, I or anyone else feels about it. It’s about accountability. It’s about having the respect for those who’ve died and suffered because of Johnson and his party’s poisonous ideologies, policies, and decisions – the respect to not clap for these monsters, not let them off the hook, not cover for them with excuses. Let’s not forget that many of the world’s top economists, Nobel Prize winners even, condemned the government’s austerity strategy not just on a humanitarian basis but an economic one too. Ultimately austerity did its job – it facilitated a massive transfer of wealth from bottom to top, from public to private, at the expense of those who most need help in society. That wasn’t an accident, it was a deliberate calculation. Likewise, medical experts from across the world condemned Britain’s response, but it fell on deaf ears too tuned into economic worries. Take any outrage you feel when people celebrate the demise of their oppressors, and turn it on those who knowingly contribute to violent social structures. In that spirit, if Boris does breathe his last this week, don’t mourn and don’t honour him. He’s a despicable man who caused, and continues to cause, untold suffering to hundreds of thousands and only gets away with it because he’s many steps abstracted from the consequences of his actions. Say good riddance to bad rubbish and raise a glass to those who we’ve lost to the structural violence he’s complicit in furthering.