"The Banality of evil” is a phrase coined by the philosopher Hannah Arendt when she was covering the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.
She meant that atrocities aren’t necessarily committed by monsters but by fairly ordinary human beings out of a mixture of motives—careerism, conformism, fear, greed, bureaucratic convenience. As well as from more ideological reasons such as racism.
One of my friends on Facebook commented “the banality of evil” on Dominic Cummings’s notorious photo of a whiteboard in 10 Downing St in March 2020. It showed projections of infections and deaths, with the scribbled question at the bottom—“Who do we not save?”
Cummings’s seven hours of testimony painted a devastating picture of an uncoordinated Whitehall machine ruled by routine, cheese-paring, lies, and buck-passing.
But ideology was there as well, in Boris Johnson’s steady resistance to lockdowns. A true Thatcherite, he let “the bodies pile up” for the sake of the economy—profits before life.
The amazing thing is that, a couple of weeks on, Cummings’s indictment has sunk without trace. It has become, literally, history—evidence that historians and inquiries will refer to. But politically Cummings didn’t lay a finger on Johnson.
How is this possible? There are probably a lot of reasons. Cummings himself is a discredited figure after his notorious trips up North flouting the lockdown. But there are probably three main political factors.
First of all, the government is borrowing and spending vast amounts of money to cushion firms and households from the effects of the lockdown. Many people are still experiencing real hardship. But, in Britain and other economies in the imperialist centre of the system, we see the paradox of a huge contraction in output without a matching collapse in incomes.
Secondly, the fast vaccine rollout has been about the only thing the government has got right. The contrast with the European Union’s fumbling response is striking. Finally, Johnson is blessed with a feeble opposition. Labour under weak and nasty Keir Starmer is more interested in attacking its own members than in challenging the Tories.
Now some of this can change. Starmer is unlikely to develop a backbone. But as the temporary subsidies are unwound, an economy that has already suffered considerable destabilisation thanks to Brexit may experience a dead cat’s bounce. In other words, output may initially sharply recover but then slide back into a more conventional recession.
Above all, we don’t know how long the pandemic has to run. So far the vaccines seem to be winning the race with the new variants of Covid-19. But, with most of the world’s population still unvaccinated, only a fool would bet on our luck holding, especially if there’s a rush to premature reopenings.
But if Johnson is able to hang onto office, we may see something like Britain in the 1930s. Elsewhere you had surges to the far right or to the left. But in Britain the Tories dominated politically. Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain presided over “National governments” that pursued austerity at home and appeased the dictators abroad. Labour was marginalised and the trade unions still were recovering from the defeat of the General Strike of 1926.
But disgust at what the poet W H Auden, a spokesperson for this generation, called “a low dishonest decade”—Tory rule and fascism spreading globally—radicalised many young people. The Communist Party made massive inroads among students and exerted growing ideological influence through, for example, the Left Book Clubs.
This climate motivated the likes of George Orwell, alongside many working-class militants, to go and fight for the Republican side in Spain. It also helped to lay the basis for Labour’s landslide victory in the 1945 general election.
We are seeing the beginnings of radicalisation now. It started before the pandemic with Extinction Rebellion. But it has grown more recently, with the Black Lives Matter protests and then solidarity with Palestine. Johnson may survive the likes of Cummings and Starmer, but still feed a much more powerful rebellion from below.