Perhaps I’m one of them. My local High Street is ghost town full of aspirant ghosts. This is a look at how we got here and what we might expect.
Phase one. Phoney war in the West
While China went into lock down and South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam quickly closed borders, tested and traced, governments in “the West” reacted in a way that at first defies rational explanation; being more concerned with making political milage out of how China’s reaction was “Draconian” and not what could be contemplated “in a democracy” than making serious preparations for the impact on their own countries when the virus spread – as it was bound to do. At the same time, the conventional wisdom last month that Covid 19 is basically flu so nothing to get worked up about, we could “take it on the chin” with business as usual and power through it, lulled people into a false and fatal sense of security. In the local supermarket just two and a bit weeks ago the guy in front of me asked why the price of his item had gone up.
“We had a new delivery this morning. and the price was higher because of the situation.”
With a dismissive sniff, “what’s Coronavirus? Just flu.”
I had to point out that it is twice as contagious and ten times more lethal than ordinary flu and appeal to everyone who was listening to please take it seriously. They all looked a bit shocked but took it in. There’s the evidence of a failure to launch a timely public information campaign right there.
Just two weeks ago only a few meetings or social events were being closed down and there was a sense that this might be being alarmist even amongst those of us starting to do it, but a sense of unease was building and there were signs all around of partial steps being taken before there was any serious steer from above. On the tube at Golders Green on March 7th, a small group of friends passing round hand sanitiser and rubbing it in before they got off. A young man sitting with two guitars and wearing a face mask, but seeming a bit bashful about it and keeping his eyes down. Not many people sitting apart from each other. There was soap and water in the public toilet but the water was running cold – and it probably still is. Something ominous coming but no one thoroughly prepared for the full measure of it. The cafes were full and the streets were busy.
There are three possible interpretations of this failure to meet a growing threat on the part of Western governments, and “the establishment”, the 1%, the ruling class, the bosses; whatever you want to call that layer of society who, as R. Taggart Murphy puts it are “the people who have first claim on economic resources and are the last to suffer when anything goes wrong, even when they are directly responsible for the damage.” (1).
- The ruling class are stupid. This is a very tempting interpretation, especially when watching Boris Johnson doing his Prime Minister impersonation or President Trump bullshitting his way through yet another daily briefing of lies, fantasies and insults; or contemplating the complete failure of the US, UK and EU to take account of the evidence that was being shoved under their noses by events and reinforced by the World Health Organisation. But, taken as a whole, these are highly sophisticated, well educated people capable of detailed analysis and highly intelligent manipulation of public reactions; so it would be a mistake to underestimate them.
- The ruling class are ruthless and have less regard for human life than the profitability of their system and the need to maintain their power. This would be indignantly rejected by most of them, and most people who tend to look kindly upwards with rose tinted glasses, but there always had to be ice in the veins of people who ran Empires built from the slave trade, in which millions died of famine while grain was exported, which waged wars for the right to sell opium; and it still runs in that of their descendants; who preside over a world still structured by the inequalities and injustices that are their legacy. The ability to “smile as you kill”, as John Lennon put it, the capacity to lie with total self belief and behave like a vandal while maintaining impeccable manners is built into the way these people are brought up through the elite public schools and institutions like the Bullingdon Club or US Frat Houses. The sort of character satirised by Shaw in St Joan, where the ghost of the Earl of Warwick explains with disarming charm to the ghost of Jean d’Arc that burning her to death was “nothing personal. Your death was a political necessity” could be written because he was so easily recognisable. This way of thinking is reflected in Dominic Cummins remark that “herd immunity” was worth pursuing because the deaths of “a few pensioners” was neither here nor there; and the article by a Daily Telegraph economics correspondent that the deaths of thousands of unproductive elderly people would be “mildly beneficial” to the economy “when looked at dispassionately.” A Malthusian approach to “the surplus population” (as Dickens’s Mr Scrooge puts it) is nothing new; and likely to be far more common in private than in public. Just consider the Grenfell fire in this context.
- Ruling class thinking is so dominated by the structures, relationships, laws and values that ensure their continuing wealth and power that any challenge to it – from wherever it comes – is literally unthinkable; so the first reaction to challenges that appear like a deus ex machina almost has to be denial. This comes across as a sort of hubris – that the normal functioning of business could defy an imperative that is beyond its limits. The element of “stupidity” – an inability to learn faced with incontrovertible evidence – is structured by this. This is corroborated by the experience of other challenges. On the crunch day of the 2008 financial crisis the CEO’s of the UK Banks that were about to crash and take the whole system down with them were sitting in a meeting with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Treasury team refusing to agree to the government bail out that saved their arses until the last possible minute; because they saw the terms on offer as an impossible and unacceptable restriction on their freedom of action; describing it afterwards as a “drive by shooting” – even though it socialised their debt at enormous cost to society with no consequent obligation on their part to restructure their operations to meet social needs. The case of climate change is even more evident. One example symbolically stands for all. In November last year the Veneto Regional Council, with its offices on Venice’s Grand Canal, voted down measures to reduce CO2 emissions barely two minutes before rising flood waters drove them out of their chamber. George Osborne’s asinine boast to the Conservative conference in 2011 that “We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business” is still the mind set for those who hold our fates in their hands in the West – and evidence of why they don’t deserve to.
A deeper problem is that this way of thinking is also dominant in the general population, whose lived reality is within these structures and “values”, that define the limits and imperatives they bump into while trying to get by in a world constructed for someone else’s benefit, so they appear so much as common sense or normality to most people that it is barely possible to imagine living or thinking in any other way. Crises shake that and reveal to those with eyes to see that the Emperor’s clothes are – at least – threadbare. People imagine alternatives and start trying to construct them when they have to.
President Trump expresses ruling class thinking as an expression of pure id. Coherence and higher level thinking have nothing to do with it. He takes the old jokes that were so effective against Gerald Ford – “his library burned down and the tragedy was both books were burned – and one of them wasn’t coloured in yet” – and turns them into a strength. Who likes reading anyway? He is an impresario of knee jerk reactions. The targets of his barbs are finely calculated to avoid thought and go straight to fears and exploitable emnities. He is mobilising fears and turning them against targets that strengthen his position while throwing out false hopes – because people need to believe that this will be easier than it is and want to hang on to whatever shred of “normality” they can.
- Initially claiming it to be a hoax perpetrated by the Democrats. This claim was loudly repeated by Fox News, so one of their commentators has since had to be sacked. Trump himself remains in place saying he doesn’t want to look back. Amnesia is a condition compulsory for true believers.
- Initially saying it was “totally under control”, or since that this or that medicine might be a miracle cure that was already ready, or that it would “disappear’ like a “miracle”; none of which has or is going to happen, all of which have had to be denied by the FDA, some of which have led to people getting ill from taking inappropriate meds on his say so; but none of this matters because he “has a good feeling” about it.
- Relentlessly labelling it as a “Chinese virus” or a “foreign virus”, as if diseases have a nationality and could be made subject to border control. With an irony that would be wonderful if the consequences weren’t so serious, the higher rate of infection in the US has led to the Mexicans closing the border against American visitors. Build that wall. His attempt to offer large sums to a German company for exclusive deployment of the vaccine they are developing for use in the US alone – an offer creditably turned down by the company which quite rightly declared that any vaccine it produced would be for everyone – and the continuing and intensifying exploitation of medical sanctions against vulnerable countries like Iran and Venezuela, highlights the nationalistic recklessness that is stripping US power bare of its previous “global leadership” and “human rights” pretensions and leaving it ugly and naked for all to see.
Meanwhile his followers round on anyone campaigning for an effective approach as “politicising the crisis”. Perish the thought. Similar charges are made in the UK where we are all supposed to “pull together” behind a government that helped dump us in the leaky boat we’re in and has taken initiatives when forced to do so not because they have ever been ahead of the curve.
Meanwhile petty sorcerer’s apprentice figures over here like Nigel Farage railed against the WHO. “The World Health Organisation is just another club of ‘clever people” who want to bully us and tell us what to do. Ignore.” Can’t have ‘clever people” who might know what they are talking about telling us what we need to do to save our lives and bullying us into health. Where will it end? Just take back control, light up that fag, have another pint and infect all your mates. Tim Martin of Wetherspoons, just before the government finally moved to close down pubs and cafes, declared that his pubs would stay open because there had “hardly been any transmission” of Covid19 in pubs; so thats alright then. We can afford a few transmissions to keep the beer flowing. Its a matter of priorities after all. Never forget where this idiocy leads.
Phase two: Waking up to several months of Sundays
Last Saturday, the day after the government told cafes, pubs and restaurants to shut, most did in my local High Street; a few rapidly repositioning themselves to offer take out only with delivery. One or two were open with no signs. All but one were empty. There were fewer people but still too many, some wearing masks, some with scarves across their mouths and nose in an attempt to avoid viral roulette. Hopefully the Prime Minister won’t say they ‘look like bank robbers.’ Traffic, normally jammed on a Saturday, flowed freely. Walking past the barbers, the bloke who usually cuts my hair was working wearing a face mask – but he had pulled it down to breathe more easily – hoping – presumably – for symbolic protection. It was possible the next day to look out over West London from our living room window which – because we are on a hill – gives a vista right across past Wembley Stadium on the foreground all the way to the distant hills of Richmond park on the southern horizon – and appreciate the hush. The roofs seemed to be dreaming. For years you could count the aircraft flying East to West across the City to get to Heathrow, an orderly queue, one every thirty seconds. On Sunday, nothing. I counted three all afternoon, and no vapour trails. The sky is an unbroken blue of oddly celebratory weather.
The sudden change in the rules was way too slow and came partly from pressure from below and partly from pressure from other countries experiences. An example is what happened with schools.
- At the beginning of the week the government was saying that there was no need to close schools.
- Other countries, accepted to be only a week or two ahead of us in the trajectory of infections, had closed theirs and people could see that their health systems were already struggling. The shortage of ventilators and beds meaning that anyone over 60 was being left to sink or swim. In some cases ventilators were being removed from elderly patients to go into younger ones because they were the only ones available.
- The National Education Union publicly asked for the modelling being used by the government to argue that keeping schools open was a safe course of action to be publicly shared. At the same time they told all of their members who were in vulnerable categories to inform their Head teachers that they would be self isolating at home from Monday and that if the Heads resisted that the union would see them in court.
- The government failed to come up with its model, which undermined what authority their stance had – and as the week went on, more and more teachers went off, either with symptoms or as a measure of self protection, 2 000 more teachers joined the union and Reps emerged in quiet schools so they had a voice, while the Heads unions also expressed concerns. At the same time, an increasing number of parents took their children out without waiting for an instruction from government.
- Faced with a chaotic break down of the school system the government ordered partial closure on the terms set down by the union – with some places left open for the children of key workers.
- The experience this week has been that very few of those children have actually come in – even in those few schools that tried to hold open more places than the 10% maximum laid down.
The impact of all this is that rules and expectations previously taken to be imperative and unchallengeable have suddenly become optional. Deadlines have evaporated to be replaced by the incessant buzzing of WhatsApp messages from the local mutual help group; as real life proves that there is such a thing as society. Some basic lessons.
- When it comes to the crunch the market can’t deliver. The state has to step in. The question there is the extent to which it is doing so in order to subsidise businesses and to what extent to guarantee a social need. In Spain they have requisitioned private health care. Here they have done a deal. Italy has renationalised Al Italia. Here Richard Branson wants a bail out. The pattern of 2008 is at risk of repeating itself but that is not inevitable. If people are to “all pull together” that can’t be in the interests of keeping Richard Branson in yachts and private islands while everyone else suffers.
- Just in time deliveries and the production pattern that goes with them requires a society living on its nerve ends all the time.
- Once a pattern of home working and zoom conferencing gets established there’s every possibility that they will become the norm.
- Air travel looks like becoming far rarer.
TINA (“There is no alternative”) is dead, even “going forward”. This has enormous consequences for the movement to save us from the even greater challenge posed by climate change. If the government can nationalise railways, guarantee 80% of wages, direct car companies to produce ventilators, require non essential businesses to shut down (even Sports Direct and Wetherspoons) – at least for a while – mobilise volunteers to work in the Health Service, set up local co-ordinations of councils, the health service and voluntary organisations to meet emergency responses and require huge changes in social behaviour to save us from a virus, the taboo against taking similar action to repurpose our economy and society so that we can drastically cut carbon emissions and live in a sustainable way has been broken. We can think outside the box because the walls of the box have broken. There will be strenuous efforts to rebuild them as was in an attempt to go back to “normal” but we don’t have to let them get away with that.
Phase three: Whats next?
The genie is already out of the bottle and running riot. Because of the failure to test there is no grip on who has and who has not got this virus. Kings College has launched an App for people to log into with their state of health, so some backdated information can be gathered, but this depends on a critical mass of representative people taking part so patterns can be observed. Voluntary initiatives like this have come to the fore because there has not been an attempt to do this by the government, which needs to step up.
The measures taken so far have been too little too late, which will mean that they will have to be intensified for longer while increasing numbers of people die. None of us is invulnerable. I am acutely aware that I am writing this as a 66 year old with high blood pressure and a longstanding chronic cough.
So far there has been a certain amount of social discipline and a huge level of social mobilisation from the bottom up. 405 000 people have volunteered to help the NHS deliver medicine and probably food to vulnerable people on lockdown. The Communication Workers Union has volunteered en bloc to be the fourth emergency service and do similar (2). The government and much of the media will attempt to frame this outpouring of social solidarity in nationalist terms – as a patriotic duty more than social solidarity, precisely because the latter has the potential to go beyond the limitations of the former. Johnson always appears for his daily briefings bracketed by Union Jacks, making him look as though he is framed in rather stuffy patriotic parentheses – which, of course, he is. Meanwhile people at home with their eyes misting up look at videos of Germans on balconies singing Bella Ciao in solidarity with Italy.
This social solidarity has partially broken down around panic buying. This reflects a genuine fear of being stuck at home without enough food (or toilet rolls) that was completely predictable and could have been blunted by a far more rapid imposition of limits on purchases of particular items. The notion that “the customer is always right” inhibited the needed response for far too long. We have also had some criminal elements trying to exploit the situation, either by profiteering on scarce goods or posing as volunteer support to get info and access to the bank accounts of vulnerable people. In one case very tastefully targeting people whose children are in free School Meals.
As this drags on, unless there is a deepening of the underpinning of economic security, and as the death toll climbs, that cohesion is likely to start fraying at the edges as those not covered by the wages guarantee start hearing the siren voices of those calling for a return to work before the virus has been eliminated. Further measures of socialisation – what we used to call “social security” – will have to be taken to prevent this. Employers of key workers who have not staggered start and stop times to take account of rush hour crushes on public transport – which make social distancing impossible for anyone caught up in it – will have to be instructed to do so.
As this crisis works its way through this summer there will be a three way divergence globally.
- If China sustains its effective suppression of the virus and starts cranking its society and economy back up – as it is starting to do – it will be seen to have recovered with a relatively low level of casualties.
- The total in Europe and the US will be far higher and the economic disruption far greater. Goldman Sachs estimates that US GDP could collapse by 25% in the next quarter, pushing unemployment up to 13%. This will have political as well as economic consequences. (3)
- If and when the virus runs out of control in the developing world, the death rate is likely to be higher still unless there is a massive and co-ordinated international effort to strengthen health systems. China and Cuba are already trying, but can’t do this on their own. The approach of the current US administration, to maintain medical sanctions on threatened countries while whipping up racist reactions, is the opposite of what is needed.
Recognising this, Sadiq Khan’s appeal to Boris Johnson to step up to the global co-ordinating role played by Gordon Brown in the financial crash is almost surreal – not just because its Boris Johnson but because what Boris Johnson and his government believe in makes it impossible for them to play this role.
Conclusions will be drawn about global leadership through the experience of who is providing it in practice. This is dramatised by the scarcely believable statements from Trump and Brazil’s President Bolsonaro today and some US senators starting on Monday. Bolsonaro denounced city governments ordering lockdowns calling for people to “get back to work” while boasting that he personally could survive this virus because of his “athleticism”. The only thing missing was a box of Lemsip max strength poking out of his pocket. Trump – since Monday – has started talking about the cure being worse than the disease and floating a “return to work” around Easter Sunday and that having churches full to bursting on that day would be a “beautiful thing.” This is not because he is hoping for a miracle – though a connection with deeply atavistic sentiments about rising from the dead in Spring should not be ruled out – but is quite explicitly posed as putting the needs of the economy above the needs of the people. This means that there will be a political drive from forces animated by Trump to go back to business as usual as rapidly as possible if they can get away with it. No one should be in any doubt that this will kill many, many people. The extent to which they get away with this will be the extent to which there is mass revulsion and push back.
Out with them!
A personal post script
The meeting that I went to on March 7th was for XR Educators to work out their perspective in the wake of the general election. I was there for the NEU Climate Change Network. The immediate campaigning plans discussed at the meeting are all on hold because of the virus, but what I took away from it has been invaluable in another sense. in the crisis we now face.
I am not a member of XR and have a more traditional Labour movement way of operating. Some of that involves a rather functional approach to meetings. When doing introductions we usually just say who we are and who we’re representing. At this meeting – possibly reflecting the Quaker influence in the long tradition of non violent direct action that goes back through Occupy all the way to the Committee of a 100 – and possibly reflecting a need to face an existential crisis with some appreciation of life so as not to fall into despair – we were asked to introduce ourselves and say something we were grateful for. At the time I was grateful for my Freedom Pass because it enabled me to get to the meeting for nothing. Since then, every day I have felt and noticed things I am grateful for – the cloud of bees in the frothy white cherry blossoms on the tree outside my flat – the light reflecting on the ceiling as it comes through the curtains in the morning – the uplift at the end of Beethoven’s violin concerto, my wife’s wit, my daughter’s laugh and my son’s hugs. And I am grateful for the nudge to let that gratitude in.
- R Taggart Murphy. Privilege Preserved. Crisis and Recovery in Japan. New Left Review 121 Jan/Feb 2020