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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

Excuses for Grief

From reactionary grief to revolutionary joy.

The UK is gripped in an inflationary cost of living crisis, driven in part by energy costs and a reactionary regime that prioritises shoring up corporate wellbeing over human need. This has added to the burdens of an archaic system of land ownership, with those renting their homes facing greater and greater degrees of precarity. What this means is homelessness, families torn apart, lives diminished or cut short.

And it all comes after the deaths of at least over two hundred thousand souls during a harrowing pandemic that, despite blithe proclamations, is not at all concluded. The elderly, sick and disabled suffered worse. Racialised minorities, women and queer people (and in particular, trans people) suffered more than most. But there was plenty of pain to share out, and only the most extremely privileged were relatively unscathed (including most of those who govern our society and dictate our narratives through senior media jobs).

Brexit, a reactionary triumph of empire nostalgia over geopolitical reality, has irreparably damaged Britain’s place in the world. Without even a trade deal with the United States, and with relations to European powers in tatters, we are isolated and vulnerable in a multipolar world of capitalist blocs competing over the ruins of a burning planet. Used to our place at the feeding trough, we suddenly find ourselves made small by our own chauvinistic hubris.

As if circumstances needed to be even worse, this is all happening in the context of a global crisis of profitability. As a consequence of the needs of a diminished capital and an interrelated reactionary turn in our politics, our already limited rights (to protest, to unionise, and in the case of many queer and Gypsy, Roma, and Traveler people, to exist) are being purged.

Everything about social reality in Britain bespeaks grief. We remain one of the economic powerhouses of the world, thanks to the ill-gotten advantages afforded to a current imperial hegemon and (largely) former colonial master, but as the very union that defines our state comes under question, the basis for our national identity is ever more implausible. We exist boldly only in our (often highly fabricated) past.

Since at least Henry VII, our monarchy has been a plaything of the aristocracy. In turn, the aristocracy entered into a mismatched and uncomfortable arrangement with British capital. Charles I and James II learned the hard way what any attempt to restore some vestige of feudal governance would mean under English modernity; both lost their power, and one lost his head. What we call the monarchy is a simulacrum of one (a simulation of something that has never existed), a national fantasy.

A robust sense of identity can withstand shocks, can shrug at mockery or overlook dissent. Not Britain’s identity, which is utterly brittle. Therefore, the glut of morbid, intolerant, mawkish, over the top reactionary grief (the phrase used by my comrade Simon Hannah) attendant on the death of Queen Elizabeth II, is entirely to be expected. Our right to oppose such an institution as monarchy (as another comrade, Dave Kellaway, has argued we must) has been arbitrarily if unofficially suspended by official protocol.

One response to the death has been the retreat of the quite recently reinvigorated unions from vital strike actions. The logic is obvious, here. If they proceed, they are accused not only of a lack of patriotism, but of a profound disrespect. But to go so seamlessly from the language of class war to acts of servile deference is surely worse!

Indeed, were they to hold the line the ideology of the labour movement might have suffered from reactionary abuse. The establishment’s media dogs would have every advantage in making the spurious case that the material needs of a great number of people ought to be trumped by the (what should be) private grief of one family. But by not even taking on the argument, the unions have made a fatal concession that fails to live up to the moment, as is typical of the British left. Fighting risks defeat, not fighting guarantees it.

The obscenities of the moment are too numerous to list. The more comical include sex stores offering sober words of consolation to the ‘nation’s grandma’, less humorously, is the spectacle of grieving over a parasocial relationship to a concocted celebrity when so many grandmothers, grandfathers, siblings, cousins, friends, spouses, have been lost. It is an awful substitute, inventing a loss when loss is omnipresent.

In a truly appalling instance of overenthusiasm for the cult of royalty, Sky News reported on a protest march about the police killing of Chris Kaba, shot by one of the state’s armed thugs, as a spontaneous march for the Queen. In any society grounded in reality, the slaughter of the disadvantaged is far more tragic, far more worthy of attention, than the demise of a rich woman in comfort, but not in the topsy turvy, inhuman world of our country.

We need to grieve, from the loss of nature to the loss of humanity, there is almost too much misery to be given its due, processed, overcome. But for that process to take place, we must grieve what is most worthy of grief. Grieving by proxy leaves our traumas unaddressed; our true unhappiness remains, and the ghouls in power seem ever willing to manipulate the very feelings of despair they create. Against reactionary grief, we should not concede; rather, we must insist on a revolutionary grief.

That means a grief that demands justice for Chris Kaba and the Covid dead. It means a grief that seeks to make good on Britain’s debts to a planet it has plundered and ravaged. It means questioning the very institution of Britain itself, as a source of so much tragedy, and it certainly means questioning any feudal relics that cement British identity. Revolutionary grief is hard work, but it has a great potential to burgeon into revolutionary joy, a new society no longer based on deference to those born to power, but to a common, universal, shared humanity.

Reactionary grief will only give us more reasons to grieve; revolutionary grief has the potential to blossom into human joy.


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