In his friendly review of Bill Gates’s How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown argues that the 2010 Copenhagen summit failed to lead to the breakthrough we needed because of both “the reluctance of the US to make legally binding commitments, and the deep suspicion of China, India and the emerging economies of any obligations that they believed might threaten their development”. (1) He then anecdotally glosses over the former and emphasises the latter by recounting the rather startling image of “Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd” having to be “physically restrained from punching the Chinese negotiator.” What an unreconstructed colonial incident that would have been. (2)
It might seem odd that the man who, as Chancellor in 2005, campaigned to “Make Poverty History” should put an equals sign between the refusal of the US – the worlds heaviest emitter per capita and the country with the biggest global legacy of carbon emissions – to see world leadership as anything other than getting away with the most it could, at the expense of those less powerful than itself – and the desire of the developing world not to stay poor; let alone foreground the latter. The way that he does this – possibly unconsciously – could stand as a warning that this attitude – that seeks a global division of labour in which the worse off and worst hit parts of the world do the heavy lifting, and restrain their development in the common interest, while the wealthiest countries try to make only those moves that maintain existing patterns of wealth, power and ways of life – is likely to find expression again and again in the run up to, at, and beyond the COP in November. There is already a significant effort going in to paint the more industrialised parts of the developing world in general – and China in particular – as the flies in the global ointment.
It should be noted that at the time of the almost punched in the face incident, both China and Australia were 80% dependent on coal for energy. Today, China has cut this to between 50 and 60%. Australia is still at 80%. So, who should have been punching whom?
A recent report from US Researchers shows how much more work every country has to do if we are to hit the Paris target of keeping the global temperature rise within 1.5C – beyond which we are likely to be in danger of feedback loops that will make it incredibly difficult for us to control. (1) The additional effort needed for a selection of key countries looks like this.
So, China has to do 41% more, just under half as much again as its already doing, while the UK has to almost double its efforts (97%) and the USA, India and Japan roughly quadruple theirs (203%, 190%, 229% respectively) and South Korea almost nine times as much. So, while John Kerry’s argument that China “isn’t doing enough” is true, nobody is, and the Washington has far more to do than Beijing; so a little humility might be in order. Closer to home, the frequent trope from UK Ministers that we “lead the world” on this are neither true – we are well behind the Chinese – nor relevant. It doesn’t matter if you are leading a pack of slower runners, if you are not going to get to the finish line before nature calls time on the race.
This blog is the first in a short series.
1. https://www.nature.com/articles/s43247-021-00097-8#Tab1 The worrying thing about this Report is that it puts a lot of emphasis that only an 80% increase in global effort would be needed to stay within 2C, as if it would not be extremely damaging and dangerous for us to end up there and it is just too much to expect that we could do what we need to if it was remotely inconvenient in the short term.
The Guardian reports a new “surge” in cases in Hebei Province in China. This amounted to 33 people on 10 January and led to an immediate city wide lockdown and quarantine to eliminate further domestic infections. Because China has the virus under control, this can be done.
The comparable figures for new cases in the UK and USA were 59,937 and 313,516 respectively, because our governments have not got the virus under control. That looks like this.
The use of the term “surge” is clearly designed to reinforced the UK government’s defeatist narrative that the virus cannot be defeated, even in places where it has been.
The importance of consciously examining the language we are reading to see how our responses are being manipulated is made clear by this example.
It has become a cliche of Western punditry that China’s accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2001 should have gradually made it “more Western”; and therefore acceptable to “the international community”of wealthy countries and the classes that run them. This is usually cloaked in the language of “representative democracy”, but actually means that they believed that China’s economy would “liberalise”, allow the private sector to dominate domestically, and following from that, pro US business forces would press the CCP to allow a political framework that would facilitate the interventions from the State Department that are routine in virtually every other country; and thereby fit into a US dominated world internationally – on the game plan of the internal coup by sections of the Nomenklatura that overturned the Soviet Union. This was- and is – expressed in a touching faith that “free market capitalism” is the only way that an economy can be run efficiently; which is always true for those that own it, but not for the rest of us who just work in it.
This has not happened. Deng Xiao Peng’s comment – “I don’t care if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice” – was widely, possibly willfully, misinterpreted in the West as a vindication of market mechanisms and nothing but; paving the way for the rule of capital to be restored in the same way that it was in the former USSR; which among other things led to a decline in male life expectancy to 58 in Russia in the mid 1990s and collapses in living standards so severe that the per capita income in Ukraine today is still below the level it was in 1989. On the contrary, the way that China has incorporated market mechanisms within state direction is now causing conniptions in the US and UK precisely because China’s growth has exposed their own failings, especially since neo-liberalism ran out of steam in the 2008 crash. An event that brought it home even to the most pro US currents in China that all was not well in the “shining city on a hill” and that perhaps it didn’t present such an alluring model of the future after all.
What this means for people’s lives can be seen in the following figures.
In 2001, at the point China joined the WTO, life expectancy was 70.59. Per Capita income was $3,207 (in PPP terms*). The percentage of people living on less than $5.50 a day, the World Bank’s higher level of poverty measurement, was 80.6% and those on less than $2 a day – truly grinding poverty – was around 44%.
By 2008 – at the time of the Western credit crunch – life expectancy had risen to 75.14. Per capita income was at $7,577. The percentage of people living on less than $5.50 a day was down to 60.6%.
As the Western economies stagnated and held down by austerity, China reoriented investment away from exports to internal infrastructure – from high speed rail to renewable energy – and the net result was that by the end of 2019 per capita income had risen to $20,273; and by the end of 2020 life expectancy to 76.96, the percentage living on less than $5.50 a day down to 23.9% and those on less than $2 a day to 0%.
These figures – the reality of the staggering improvement in quality of life that they represent – and China’s apparent immunity to economic stagnation and austerity – are also a challenge to those sections of the left in the West who consider it to be just another capitalist country. The ruling class here are under no such delusion.
Listen to the smug and thoroughly insular discussions among the commentariat on Radio 4 and there is now a cosy consensus – with opinions stated complacently and neither challenged nor explored – that the time has come to “stand up to China” and “President Trump didn’t get it all wrong”. The critique now is that the CCP run economy is “authoritarian” and – as it runs on state directed investment – provides “unfair competition” to the West. In other words, it works better. It is more effective and efficient. In the Western view, they can provide cats in black or white, but they must be privately owned. If a state owned cat catches more mice, it has to be put down.
These discussions are taking place in societies still stricken by Coronavirus – as governments put commercial considerations ahead of health, leading to a catastrophe for both – and people in China look Westwards in horror at the mess the former “Global leadership” have made of it.
*Purchasing Power Parity. This compares what can be bought with a given sum – so a lower income in one country is balanced against lower prices and compared with the higher income and higher prices in another; so a more accurate comparison can be made. One dollar in China buys roughly what $1.50 would buy in the USA. In PPP terms, the Chinese economy is already larger than that of the USA. $24.16 trillion: $20.81 trillion. With four times the population, however, per capita income is still substantially lower.
“I tremble for my country, when I reflect that God is just.” Thomas Jefferson.
In Monday’s Commons debate on scrapping the Hong Kong extradition treaty, Conservative MP and former Foreign Office Minister Tobias Ellwood said the following, ” For decades now, we have turned a blind eye to China’s democratic deficit and human rights violations, in the hope that it would mature into a global responsible citizen. That clearly hasn’t happened. Is this now the turning point where we drop the pretence that China shares our values?”
The accusations made against China are grim ones which they strongly deny, but coming from the countries that brought you – just in recent years – waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” techniques, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, Special Rendition, the Fallujah Free Fire Zone and extra judicial drone assassinations (with 601 casualties in Yemen alone between 2011 and 2017) (1) you have to wonder what human rights values “we” have been modelling; and how China has supposedly diverged from them, by allegedly doing what we have done in plain sight for so many years.
It has to be said that it is a strange sort of “genocide” in which the ethnic group supposedly being targeted is rapidly growing in numbers and proportion of the population, and an odd kind of “cultural/religious suppression” in which the number of Mosques has increased by a factor of ten in the last thirty years. Just over 2000 Mosques in Xinjiang in 1989, over 24 000 now.
Does Mr Ellwood mean that a tough line with street protests to “dominate the streets or you’ll look like a bunch of jerks”, is way out of line with anything a Western power would contemplate or carry out? (2) If so, he hasn’t been paying much attention lately or, indeed, ever.
Does he mean that mass incarceration is unacceptable? This would be odd, because the USA currently locks up 2.1 million people, 25% of the total global prison population; way above any other country and far more per head than China does; while England and Wales, with 145 prisoners per hundred thousand people, have the highest per capita prison population in Western Europe and Scotland is not far below; all well above China’s 118 per hundred thousand (3).
Can he mean the exploitation of free, or ludicrously cheap, prison labour to produce goods for well known companies? Again, this would be odd because that’s what US prisons do. McDonalds, Wendys, Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Verizon, Sprint, Victoria’s Secret, JC Penney, KMart, American Airlines and Avis are documented beneficiaries. (4)
He can’t mean interning people without trial who are in rebellion against the state, because that’s what the UK did in Kenya, Malaya, Cyprus and the North of Ireland and the US did with its “strategic hamlets” programme in Vietnam. So, that would be completely in line with “our values”, wouldn’t it?
Nor can he mean that sterilising ethnic minorities is out of line with “our values” , because that’s what the US did throughout the twentieth century at home- 25-50% of native American women in the 1970s, a third of the female population of Puerto Rico between 1938 and 1970, countless Black women given unnecessary and involuntary hysterectomies (Mississippi appendectomies), 150 prisoners in California as recently as 2010 – and to many more abroad throughout Latin America and beyond, including up to 200 000 indigenous women in Peru in the 1990s. (5)
He can’t mean disregarding local democratic rights and imposing an unwanted regime from the outside, because that’s what the United States has done 20 times by invasion and another 56 times by interventions short of that since 1949. Some of these have been very bloody. Two million Vietnamese killed, half a million Indonesian Leftists massacred in 1965, thousands and thousands throughout Latin America for decades. Whatever you think of China, it would take them a long time to catch up with a record like that.
Nor can he mean communities feeling unsafe at the hands of the police force that is meant to “protect and serve” them. The chance of being shot dead in the streets by the police was approximately 2000 times greater in the US than in China in 2019. (6)
Perhaps he means having a threatening military posture to intimidate other countries? But here again the US posture is far more threatening, both in terms of military expenditure, on which the US spends $4 for every $1 spent by China…
…and even more starkly in terms of overseas military bases, of which the USA has 800 and China has 3.
Who is “A Global Responsible citizen”…?
A responsible global citizen faces up to the fundamental challenges facing humanity and seeks co-operation to solve them. The gravest threat to all of us is climate breakdown. China is committed to the Paris Agreement, has met its targets early and raised them. The United States under Trump is walking out of the Agreement on the grounds that “we believe that no country should have to sacrifice economic prosperity or energy security in pursuit of environmental sustainability,”Wells Griffith, Trump’s envoy to the Katowice COP 2018. (7) If every country adopted the US approach, we’d have no hope of avoiding the melt down of our civilisation. Its not mature and its not responsible. The unilateral, selfish action they are taking threatens all of us with catastrophe. Mr Ellwood does not appear to have noticed, or, if he has, does not think this to be of any significance.
In the immediate global crisis caused by COVID19, the records of China, the UK and US certainly show a divergence in values. China put public safety first and, despite an initial fumble by local officials, managed to crush the virus and keep domestic deaths down to just over 4600. In the UK and US, by contrast, commercial considerations and half baked libertarianism has led so far to almost twice as many deaths in the US as there were cases in China with the virus well out of control and infections rising exponentially again. The most conservative figure for UK deaths is ten times the Chinese total (and therefore 200 times the rate per capita). A little humility about this on the part of the people responsible for it might not go amiss.
The political effect of this in China has been to boost the standing and legitimacy and standing of Xi Jinping and the Communist Party. (8) This was always far stronger than Western opinion has ever been able to comprehend, but looking out from a society that has been kept largely safe – as well as having risen from extreme poverty in living memory – the mounting casualties and sheer chaos of the “West” shocks and horrifies popular opinion. The first duty of government, after all, is to keep its people safe. Job done there. Not here.
Economically, the Chinese economy is now recovering. It was already larger in purchasing parity terms than that of the United States before COVID hit. The seeming insanity of the efforts by the Trump administration to reopen their economy while cases are rising is explained by their fear of falling further behind. The IMF projects that 51% of world growth in the next two years will be in China. The US, by contrast, will account for just 3.3%.
As the virus spreads exponentially again, pushing the US proportion of global deaths back up to 15%, from a low of 9% last month, employment and economic activity have gone through the fastest collapse in history. This stokes the US political crisis and fuels the Black Lives Matter uprising. This titanic crisis of health, survival and livelihoods – and the Trump adminstration’s callous indifference, bluster, denial and authoritarian incompetence- has revealed to a popular majority that the enemy is at home and in high places.
The controlled response to the virus in China has saved the world many infections and deaths. That of the USA continues to threaten any other country that trades or deals with it.
China has put a moratorium on debt repayments from 66 struggling developing countries. The USA has imposed sanctions on Iran and Venezuela. (9)
China has pledged that any vaccine developed in the country will be a common good for the whole world. President Trump has applied “America First” even to this, cornering the market in available treatments, gazumping other countries supplies, while, with the UK, insisting on patent rights (which puts pharma profits above cheapness and availability). Clearly a divergence in “values” there.
The increasingly delirious accusations being made against China – which in the media are presented as a labyrinth of mirrors, with each story of each allegation being reported as though they were evidence of it – reflect the desperation of a US ruling class who can feel the earth falling away under their feet. The majority of the world, as reflected in UN votes, do not believe this US narrative. Twice as many countries voted with China on both Xinjiang and Hong Kong as voted for “Western” resolutions; which were supported only by wealthy close US allies, the imperial bubble that likes to think of itself as “the global community.”
And the Left?
The dominant current in the UK Labour Movement, the Labour Right, historically gives the US complete credence. Even devotees of an “ethical foreign policy” are usually highly selective about where they look to demonstrate their ethics. I hope that what is written above is enough to convince that this position doesn’t have a leg to stand on – morally or in any other respect. For the right, this is a matter of realpolitik, so whats true doesn’t really come into it. But there are also currents that identify themselves as “far left” and take a militant line on domestic politics, but never saw a US intervention they didn’t like, nor a State Department attack line they are unwilling to shout through a social media megaphone. For all the reasons above, a pro Washington line is the most reactionary position that can be taken and, in current circumstances, will lead those that espouse it down a road towards giving the USA the social support it needs to threaten a war that could kill us all.
Others, more on the left, will have no illusions about the messenger, but will accept part or all of the message; and will consider articles like this too uncritical. The bottom line here is, that whatever critical view is held about China, or actions it is alleged to have taken, these currents do not line up with Washington and are not willing to allow themselves to be used in giving support to the war drive that is already taking place in economic sanctions and aircraft carrier deployments.
It is stopping these that is the imperative. Arguments about other matters will only be able to continue if the gathering momentum towards war and environmental collapse are stopped and the precarious structures of global co-operation are strengthened.
The UK government’s explanation of why it has decided to stop comparing the UK’s Coronavirus infection and death rates with China’s is deeply ironic. They say that Chinese stats can’t be trusted.*
There is a more obvious explanation; that China has been very successful in keeping its death rates down while the UK has not, that this is deeply embarrassing, and becoming more so as time goes on.
This is what that looks like in deaths per million as of April 26 (1).
This is significantly worse than the previous week. The Chinese figure is unchanged (on 3.3 per million) – because the virus is under control – while the US and UK figures deteriorate (from 101 to 168 per million for the US and from 206 to 305 per million for the UK) (1). This figure means that the Chinese can now start to safely reopen their economy. It is quite clear that the UK and US cannot do so safely at this level. Denial is essential to even contemplate doing so. ** Whitewashing out the discrepancy with China, is a further aspect of playing down or ignoring their experience and any lessons that could be learned from it – could be preparing the ground to do so at an unsafe level.
The trustworthiness of UK official figures is also questionable. While the daily death rate is confined to those who have died in hospital after being tested and serves a purpose in tracking trajectory, it does not include anyone who has died anywhere else; and no one in government is keen to point out that the headline figure is not the total of people who have actually died: which is considerably larger. This may be considered a sin of omission, but it nevertheless serves a purpose in downplaying how bad things actually are; another form of denial.
A Financial Times analysis (2) incorporating the Office for National Statistics figures on all deaths concluded that the official UK figure of 17 337 deaths up to Tuesday 21 April is less than half the actual figure. That looks like this.
*This is odd, because the WHO does trust them (as does the Financial Times; whose job it is to provide accurate information for the business class). A logical next step in this trajectory will be to downgrade relations with the WHO – which also serves a purpose in that it stubbornly insists on tighter conditions for easing lockdown’s than the UK government is prepared to contemplate. See previous blog.
**It is clear that the ground is being prepared to do this. Train operating companies are preparing to open up 80% of services by May 18th. Statements by Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford on behalf of the Scottish and Welsh governments on Friday on easing the lockdown to “live with” or “live alongside” the virus indicate that a reopening is being planned that is a response to commercial, not health, pressures. When Keir Starmer says that the UK risks being “left behind” in its consideration of “exit strategy” in the context of other countries beginning to ease restrictions, this applies pressure in precisely the wrong direction. The UK has the second highest daily death rate in the world right now. As of April 25, that looks like this.
The points he – and the rest of the Labour and trade union movement should to be making are:
1. That the only safe exit is one in which the WHO ‘s 6 conditions are met in full and
2. That the current lockdown should be tightened to include ALL non essential work; as the quickest route to an exit is through cutting off all possible routes to infection.
3. We can no more “live with” the virus than we can live with climate breakdown.
The Chinese figure has been uprated from 3 to 4.5 to reflect the backdated increase in deaths in Wuhan announced yesterday. In case the figures for the USA and UK are not clear on the graph, these are; USA 101. UK 206.
While the US response is widely and rightly seen as a mess, there is a tendency in the UK to give the government far more of a benefit of the doubt than it deserves.
It should be clear from this that China’s experience should be studied and learned from, while the UK and US are not models to be followed.
The bottom line right now is that China did not end its lockdown until deaths were in single figures. The relaxation of social distancing now being contemplated in parts of Europe and being discussed in the UK will let the genie back out of the bottle. Disaster will follow if this course is pursued. The only safe path to an exit is through a tightened lockdown.
Understatement is not a charming national characteristic in this case. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) – which does a weekly update to take into account the deaths that have taken place outside hospital – has just published the following.
Our data shows that of all deaths in England and Wales that occurred up to 3 April (registered up to 11 April), 6,235 involved COVID-19 compared with the 4,093 deaths reported on 4 April 2020 by @DHSCgovukhttp://ow.ly/4kHD50zdo9L
So for the week ending 3 April the total Coronavirus deaths in the UK were half as high again as those being announced by the government. 6,235. Not 4,093. That looks like this. the daily totals announced in the press briefings are just the blue part of the circle. Bear the in mind every time a new figure is announced.
While including these on a daily basis would be very difficult – and attempts to do so in France have led to wild fluctuations in daily totals that make trends harder to discern – these additional deaths should be factored in; and the provisional nature of the daily figures made clear at the daily press briefings.
With many of the most vulnerable elderly people in particular pre-triaged not to take up hospital beds and reports of significant spread of infections within Care Homes – where staff are even less likely to have proper PPE than front line medics – this gap could well grow in the next week.
The rate at which the UK and US are taking an increasing share of the daily deaths can be seen here in the FT. https://www.ft.com/coronavirus-latest.
My next post will look at these death rates per capita.
This graph shows the totals of reported global deaths for April 10th. With the usual caveats that many places in the developing world may be under reporting – the figures for the USA and UK stand out starkly. One in three of all reported deaths in the USA. One in six in the UK.
UK daily figures only include deaths in hospital, not those at home or in Care Homes; so the actual figures will be worse; probably significantly so. The Office for National Statistics will be updating these on Tuesday, so I will do another graph to take that into account then.
Three things to note.
The number of deaths in China on 10 April was zero.
With the UK death rate projected by the IHME (1) to hit a peak on April 17th with 1 674 deaths on that day, this is not a time to be prioritising talk of “exit strategies”.
Those concerened with these should be studying the Chinese experience of cranking society back into life – as the only country that has began to do so an a large scale.
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