Here we are, politicising a health crisis. And here we are repeating the obvious: a crisis, of any kind, is already a lens in which politics invariably appears, usually clarified, sometimes magnified, and always polarising. The global pandemic of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome CoV-2 (popularly Covid-19 or Coronavirus) is exactly such a lens.
Accordingly, all the deficiencies of the neoliberal / late-capitalist order stand exposed like a sandbank at spring tide; supply-side economics, just-in-time provision, the lack of built-in redundancy, the fact we too hastily value all the wrong people (financial wizards, social entrepreneurs, destined social leaders…) and none of the right people (healthcare workers, delivery drivers, environmentalists, homeworkers, carers, union representatives, labour activists, waste management operatives…)
That a relatively simple, tiny, non-sentient and innate viral bacteria may accomplish what remarkably sophisticated and complex groups of politically-organised humans could not is a mordant irony that hopefully will not be lost on future politicians of the left. Because what SARS-CoV-2 is achieving, or moving towards achieving, is the general revelation that our current way of organising society is an abject failure. It is not just an abject failure because it is overwhelmingly contingent on a series of assumptions and norms, but also because in an umwelt as small and globalised as the human world, pandemics will increasingly be the norm.
In the UK, however, the cat is still only halfway out of the bag. This is clear in the way that our leaders are even now still hedging their directions by cloaking them in a language of suggestion and advice, as if the greatest risk of all was that of appearing to lose our freedom. If we all stay home, but do so in the spirit of exercising liberal capitalist freedom, then we can pretend we chose to do so willingly. The British path to state-imposed (and of course, necessary) personal quarantine, unlike that of various other nations, is gaudily coloured in the deepest shade of bad faith. At some point, all of Boris Johnson’s attempts to appear as an anti-establishment figure, including the anti-governmentality of his father’s soundbites, will fall flat and the PM will have to speak more candidly about the measures necessary to slow the spread of the virus. All bluster over ‘herd immunity’ ceased quickly when it was revealed by epidemiologists the term was being misused by politicians (it is appropriate to post-vaccinated populations). Similarly, the attitude of a right-wing government that pretends to trust its electorate to self-regulate in the interests of neoliberal ideology will soon change when the UK follows the curve other countries have already taken.
The same aura of pretence hangs over the pronouncements of our Prime Minister and his Chancellor, who almost choke on the word ‘workers’ — a word that seems so alien to them it virtually obstructs their airway on the way out — which they append as a concern to their more easy-pronounceable business ‘rescue package’.
It’s obvious that the ‘magic money tree’ in which it was purportedly delusional to believe for any socially progressive reason can be located instantly when the fate of businesses are at stake. While in 2008-2009 plenitude momentarily took the place of austerity when a spirit of investment was found quickly enough to bail out financial institutions facing bankruptcy, now we see the pattern repeat with respect to employers and business owners. Capitalist social relations, now as then, are simply ‘too big to fail’; for them, the magic money tree not only exists but immediately so. There is no quandary over where to find it. However, there is a crucial difference this time round: as everybody knows, the true priority, the vital beating core of society that must be preserved if civilisation as we know it is not to collapse, is the availability not just of a remunerated labour force, but of all those bioeconomic givens which make it possible for the workforce to reproduce the availability of its labour. Nowhere is this more true than it is in the case of the National Health Service. The reproducible, sustainable, health of health workers is an Archimedian point, non-negotiable and crystalline. Everyone suddenly sees this. And as such it is perhaps for the first time in Conservative Party discourse being raised, albeit in difficult and somewhat muted tones, alongside their much more familiar narratives about the imperative of preserving the reproducibility of businesses.
I’ll be blogging some more about this no doubt as the crisis deepens.