Informing the Campfire Community every day

You are here

Jason Hine - 09 Apr 2020


The modern tragic leader does nothing, gives up all responsibility and sacrifices thousands of lives to keep economic growth going: they let the invisible hand of the market do the killing. They let the invisible hand of the market strangle the people.

Boris Johnson has come to closely resemble a Shakespearian tragic character, closely following and revealing the contours of Britain's inner mythical landscape.

He never really wanted Brexit to happen, but like Macbeth tempted by power, he caved into his ego and made Brexit his flagship policy when he saw it could be a road to power. Like King Lear he was temporarily repudiated by his family for his actions.

Like Othello, a much more malicious character, namely Dominic Cummings, whispered his deranged eugenics based ideas into Johnson's ear, contributing to Johnson waiting and procrastinating a month before taking any action on the Covid-19 virus. As a result of this procrastination thousands are dying, 786 today alone.

Although the Imperial college report is cited as a turning point in which the government sobered up and abandoned their herd immunity policy after it became apparent that it would kill perhaps half a million people, Dr Richard Horton, editor of the medical journal Lancet, has pointed out that the government had already been warned, including in the pages of his own publication, but failed to act on that warning.

The rapid exponential rise of cases in Italy should have made it clear the UK stood to suffer a similar fate if it procrastinated.

Dr Horton said that the government's strategy "failed, in part, because ministers didn’t follow WHO’s advice to ‘test, test, test’ every suspected case. They didn’t isolate and quarantine. They didn’t contact trace.These basic principles of public health and infectious disease control were ignored.....The result has been chaos and panic across the NHS.”

Even people of no political power or consequence, such as myself and thousands of others, were able to read scientific papers on the virus in early March and accurately predict the rapid unfolding of disaster that is now happening.

At the beginning of March the government repudiated the world health organizations advice on mass testing to contain the virus and instead wasted time trying to embark on the ridiculous pseudo-scientific herd immunity project. Still today, Britain's level of testing is inadequate, lagging far behind Germany and other nations.

During March Johnson mocked victims of the virus, joked about not observing social distancing and played down any serious threat

On March 19th, even as its health service came under growing pressure from the Covid-19 crisis, the government flatly refused to take part in a European Union joint-procurement scheme for vitally needed ventilators.

The new tyrants of this world are characterised not just by their problematic action, but by their inaction and lack of effectiveness. Like Hamlet, they procrastinate when courageous decisive action is needed.

They are characterised by their laissez-faire attitude, an obsession with keeping economic growth going whatever the cost, and their total ineffectiveness.

Alternative culture luminaries like who have a psychological tendency to dislike structure, like to criticise modern politician's obsession with "control". This is valid up to a point: it is certainly valid to resist a government's refusing to cede emergency powers after a crisis.

It IS valid to question Johnson or Trump's authoritarian tendencies and to resist power grabs they might make at this time of crisis, but this also misses half the story.

The disaster capitalism that is killing people is manifested not so much in governments actions but in their LACK of agency, lack of action, lack of structure and lack of responsibility.

Alternative culture luminaries, in love with love, in love with boundary-less flying round the world and in love with adolescent "freedom", may need to come to see the value of limit, focus, control, responsive structure and decisive action.

These characteristics of limit, focused action, control, decisive leadership and responsive structure are evident in the more successful response of countries like New Zealand and Germany to the crisis.

New Zealand's swift actions, decisive focused leadership and early lockdown means they have suffered only one death, whereas the UK has suffered 6159 deaths at the time of writing. By the time you read this, the number of deaths will have increased by a few hundred or thousand.

Curiously we also see emerging in the counterculture today, multiple ungrounded "magicians" whose repudiation of empirical data ironically aligns them with Trumpian disaster capitalists, 4chan neo-nazis and populists.

Although the modern tyrant does exert control, they do it in the wrong places: they assert border walls and brutally imprison immigrants, but have no boundaries and no healthy control or regulation, when it comes to the ecological destruction caused by economic growth. They kick out refugees but seemingly welcome deadly microorganisms with open arms.

Johnson and Trump's late action on the virus will be responsible for tens of thousands of deaths. Killing vulnerable people through inaction is still a crime against humanity. Trump's inaction on climate change may be responsible for millions of deaths and vast ecological destruction.

The modern tragic leader does nothing, gives up all responsibility and sacrifices thousands of lives to keep economic growth going: they let the invisible hand of the market do the killing. They let the invisible hand of the market strangle the people.

It's possible following this crisis the invisible hand of the market will be total deligitimised in the future. Future generations in countries like Taiwan and Germany and New Zealand, who were involved in intensive testing and tracking of victims of the virus, will look back at this time and say:

"At the time of crisis, we acted. We were courageous. We stood up".

Our descendants will look back at the first month of the Covid-19 outbreak in Britain and the US and see:

  • Total moral failure
  • Total failure of leadership
  • Total spiritual failure
  • Total ethical failure

Johnson and his government were not able to see the truth when it was staring them in the face. The philosopher Stanley Cavell talks about the roots of Shakespearian tragedy in skepticism, in repudiating presence to experience and in disowning knowledge.

The Shakespearian tragic character is a sceptic about reality like Descartes and is unable to see what is right in front of him, with devestating consequences.

Hamlet doubts evidence of his father's murder that is right in front of him. Othello can't see Desdemona's goodness and Iago's manipulative corrupt nature, even though its staring him in the face. King Lear can't see that two of his daughters have betrayed him and he has betrayed the only one who loves him.

Likewise, Johnson was unable to see the facts of the Coronavirus, even when they were staring him in the face. And when he saw them, he acted too late. Fairly unique amongst majority world leaders, he became his own collateral damage.

Fate reached out her hand for Boris Johnson, and dragged him down.

Will Trump suffer a similar fate? "Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad" said Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, paraphrasing the Greek tragedian Sophocles.

The inevitable machinations of fate is of course the theme of classical Greek and Shakespearian tragedy. And, like in Aeschylus's Oresteia, the three fate goddesses themselves, the wyrd sisters, actually turn up in person in Macbeth. These are entities who would have been known in Britain even at the time when folk were hunter gatherers.

King Lear sums up his fate when he says he was "bound on a wheel of fire", recalling the flames of the wheel of fate or sangsara in Buddhism. That's probably not a total co-incidence, as the Anglo-Saxon word "wyrd", meaning fate, and the Sanskrit word "karma" have similar root meanings in the hypotheised reconstructed proto Indo-European language.

Will Boris Johnson be changed by his illness? Perhaps he'll be corrected and humbled. Perhaps the fates will alter him. May it be so. May his psyche be broken down and reshaped by his experience. Of course, with a hundred believing mirrors around him, believing his own self deception, it's very also possible he'll just be exactly the same.

According to Ted Hughes, the entirety of Shakespeare is the story one being's mythic journey, his youthful adventures in the comedies and his tragic fall and death in the tragedies.

He falls because he rejects what Hughes refers to as the "goddess" (like Hamlet's rejection of Ophelia, King Lear's rejection of Cordelia, Othello's rejection of Desdemona etc). Perhaps this goddess is the one who gives Britain its name, Brigit or Brigantia, also sometimes a triple Goddess.

The pushed down Goddess then grows an outgrowth or emissary of fate, who takes the tragic character down. Hughes's vision is probably too idealised, but it gets at a mythic core in shakespeare in some way.

In Stanley Cavell's account of Shakespearean tragedy, the tragic character falls due to his Cartesian skepticism; ontological skepticism about what is right in front of his face.

The absolute separation of body and mind and humanity and nature we find in Descartes, is an intellectualisation of a form of dissociation which itself emerged from the somatic trauma of thousands of years of forced enclosure and thousands of years of separation from the land.

Shakespeare hadn't read Descartes's philosophies. They were published a few years after his death, but as a prophetic artist, he may have sensed the cultural and psychological direction of the times and incorporated this in his tragic characters.

This same Cartesian separation of body and mind, and separation of humanity and nature, were later part of the ideological justification for colonialism.

In this sense the tragic Shakespearian hero falls due to his colonial outlook of superiority over the earth and the people, that stops him being present to what is right in front of his face. Its not hard to locate all those characteristics in Boris Johnson.

Is that the end of the story? The Shakespearian mythos is not just one person's story. Forget about Boris for a minute. In a sense this is also about the whole of England's dreaming. Was Johnny Rotten correct in snarling those potent words:

"There is no future in England's dreaming"?

Yes and no. Near the bottom of his abysmal arc, Macbeth has a delirious vision or hallucination of a radiant child, "striding the blast." This child is the future evolution of his soul, beyond his death. After the tragedies, the Shakespearean mythic character experiences a strange coda or rebirth in the final romances.

In Shakespeare's final play the Tempest, the Shakespearian tragic hero is reborn as a kind of magician-scientist, representing someone who integrates structure, responsibility and the newly emerging science with magic and wildness

In a way that is of course rightly rough and flawed, he arranges the imperfect Hieros Gamos of two lovers, somewhat reluctantly repudiates his colonialism, integrates his earth based (Caliban) and spiritual (Aerial) nature, integrates his scientific and magical nature and wakes up and becomes lucid in the dream of life whilst performing a ceremony ("we are such stuff as dreams are made on....")

This story also recalls the older oral Celtic story of the birth of that other numinous bard, the Welsh sixth century bard Taliesin, which was written down in Shakespeare's time.

The story of the Birth of Taliesin, like the Tempest, is a prophetic story about bringing science and mythos, discipline and magic, together, which emerged before the time they got split apart, just after Shakespeare's time.

In the story the sorceress Ceridwen cooked up a concoction in a cauldron which contains the essence of both "awen", druidic mythos, and rational science.

When the one who was supposed to stir the cauldron for a year and a day, Gwion Bach, accidentally tasted of the fruit of the cauldron, the cauldron shattered and he fled from Ceridwen, who pursued him in multiple shapeshifting forms, finally consuming him as a grain of wheat.

Through consuming Gwion she became became impregnated by his essence and she bore him as a child. Gwion was reborn as Taliesin, the one who brings science and mythos together.

Just as the breaking of the cauldron may represent the dichotomy or schism between science and magic that developed around the time of Descartes and Frances Bacon, just after Shakespeare's death, Prospero and Taliesin may prophetically or mythologically represent a possible symbolic bond of science and druidic mythos.

Not for them the modern militant aetheist who rejects all mythos, or the modern conspiracy theorist who rejects all empirical data and science. At times of plague, rumour and chaos, ungrounded magicians have always run riot. Taliesin and Prospero symbolically represent a more grounded, boundaried mature approach

Perhaps more importantly, figures like Prospero, and others from Shakespeare's late "romance" plays, represent the humbling of the Shakespearean egoic tragic figure into wisdom, his "suffering into truth", to use a phrase from Sophocles, and finally his ceremonial reconciliation with the land itself.

Like the Shakespearean tragic hero, will contemporary Britain be reborn from its time of darkness? It is instructive and sobering that Shakespeare aimed his most beautiful poetics and bardic powers at the most tragic moments of his character's lives.

There is no certainty of getting to reunion when we are at the stage of tragedy and loss. Let's let go of false hopes. Let's admit huge failures have happened. Dysfunctional leaders need to be brought to account.

Terrible mistakes will have to be put right by the brave actions and sacrifices of doctors, scientists and NHS workers. Some things will never be put right. We'll need to look after each other and afterwards gather in solidarity to weave a new fate and make something better.

Nevertheless, its interesting to know, according to Shakespeare at least, that the nightmare of history ends in a ceremony. We'll need both our most diligent and rigorous scientists and our most mythic wise storytellers to make it over the abyss we face.


More From Jason Hine