The structure of the economy after decades of economic liberalisation and a decade of austerity is not fit to deal with the social fallout of a global pandemic. David Jamieson looks at the possibility of popular responses.
The coronavirus has rapidly exposed the fragility of the global economy after decades of global integration on a neoliberal basis. Now it will test the cohesion of societies suffering a crisis of democratic legitimacy after decades of class conflict.
In the UK, the distance between public authority and public confidence is profound. A decade of austerity means vital public services which should have protected communities from the consequences of the illness are running on fumes in normal times.
We are not merely ‘a society’ facing the pandemic – ‘one nation’ with a singular interest and outlook. Every major social crisis is faced as a class society, with rulers protecting particular interests to the detriment of the wider good. We know, for example, that in the minds of the UK Government, the impact on the UK economy is being treated as a priority separate from the impact on citizen’s lives. Commonly applied European guidelines on the containment of the virus are not being applied in the UK, where ‘social distancing’ measures are only now being unevenly implemented.
Whatever we are being told, it is not what the rich are telling each other. In their house journal, The Times, their editorial remorsefully acknowledges that the government is not yet in a position to be honest about the scale of the economic dislocation coming.
It is wrong to stimulate the moods of panic which are inevitably emerging in some corners. And it is futile to speculate on how profoundly the effects of the pandemic will be felt, owing to the unpredictable association of factors that can be triggered by such a generalised social shock.
But it is not wrong to consider what popular responses may be necessary in coming weeks.
As Athens based socialist activist Kevin Ovenden writes:
“I suspect that one calculation (or fear) that the government has is not that if radical preventative measures are taken now then people will get bored or won’t sustain them in four weeks time.
“They must also be considering the opposite.
“That it will lead to community, social, workplace and worker organisation as people run up against the austerity-mangled health and social services.
“That it will lead to demands to shift capital and resources to meet need – direct health need and resulting needs from the measures taken.
“That people will ask if the private jets have been grounded and the casino-style speculation in the City [stopped].
“Whether there should be price controls and requisitioning of capital. The private hospitals taken over.
“People around Grenfell did not get “bored” in the weeks following the massive community effort immediately after the atrocity. They have sustained monthly mobilisation.
“The necessary steps conflict with capital. And this new government does not want that to get beyond its control in its first few months. At the very least this must be a major consideration. Priti Patel is the Home Secretary, after all.
“The government sets up this dilemma: simply obeying it versus the nightmare of a “mob” with people fighting over a roll of toilet paper. And then the only thing for the public to do is individual action – absolutely necessary, but not sufficient.
“There is another option. Collective organisation and assertion of control, encroaching on capital and pressing its central instrument – the state – to bend in a popular direction.”
The economist Grace Blakely has noted that the economic impact of the virus will be highly unevenly felt, with the UK’s large number of low-paid renters particularly vulnerable. Many are asking whether measures announced for the deferment of mortgage payments will be passed on to renters, or whether landlords will take the opportunity for bumper profits.
Scotland’s tenants union Living Rent has issued the following demands:
“1) Implement a pause on any and all evictions in both the private and social rented sector during the coronavirus pandemic.
“2) Grant all renters affected by coronavirus a ‘rent holiday’ and pause rent collections, including for those who are unable to work or need to self-isolate.”
We urge all renters to contact the union in the event of difficulty with landlords during this time.
Conter will carry perspectives and analysis on this new situation as it emerges, always with an eye to the reality of the pandemic as being deeply tied to the class structure of society.