Danny McGregor examines developments in the run-up to the Covid-19 pandemic, and argues that, regardless of recent jumps in support for governments, the new reality will place more pressure on existing fractures.
The manifestations of any crisis are always a crystallisation of what has went before combined with the specific and concrete characteristics of the crisis itself. Before Covid-19 there was a deeply entrenched distrust of authority, and especially of elected officials.
A mistrust of ‘experts’ sown as part of an attempt to harness popular rejection of authority, has had to be violently ditched. For many millions already, the image of the new political reality is Johnson or Trump, both flanked by scientists, as if they have suddenly rediscovered the enlightenment. The real motivation, is, of course, the outsourcing of responsibility.
This widely held scepticism is intertwined with a generalised distrust of the post bailout banking sector, and the subsequent austerity programme designed to protect the interests of capital. Rather than bring about the prematurely heralded end of neoliberalism, this further entrenched the idea that only the private sector should ultimately be in control. If you look at the economic package so far the mission to preserve capital still persists, regardless of the historic scale of change.
The elitist and snide attacks on those questioning government motivations at a time of a health crisis would do well to remember the 120k people who have died as a direct result of the austerity project: a fact which belies the Conservative claim of being all ‘in it together’. Nurses without PPE look on as the super-rich jet off to island bunkers, or, until recently, try to buy their way into New Zealand to escape the crisis, as the royal family and political enforcers of herd immunity receive priority testing. Our media outlets have the barefaced shame to talk about working class selfishness whilst US Republicans and Democrats have sold shares immediately after private Coronavirus briefings, and so many CEO’s have been quietly resigning in record numbers in order to sell their shares. The rich, as always, will take care of themselves and their own.
Another aspect of this crisis of legitimacy stems from ongoing and substantial cuts to the NHS, with little respect paid to the vital frontline staff, who had to endure a public sector pay cap, so gleefully celebrated by the Conservatives at the time. In the last 30 years, the number of NHS hospital beds has halved. This seriously impinges on our ability to deal with health care on a day to day basis and has catastrophic consequences. Jeremy Hunt tried to place himself ahead of the Conservative curve by accepting the dangerous nature of his cuts, but this is less about compassion or humility and more about competition within his party; an instinct that will die hard, even in a catastrope of this scale.
The worship of the free market and the overall withdrawal of state responsibility in recent decades, as per the championing of “liberal values” has meant that the state is less able and experienced in dealing with crises of this kind (compare and contrast, as state organisers are making sure people do, with China’s command and control measures).
It has been suggested that Johnson has perhaps been ideologically opposed to curtailing freedoms. However, this emphasis on democracy and ‘our values’ has been very useful in justifying the now discredited herd immunity strategy and also rather contradicts the reality of the government’s curtailment of freedoms in parliament as represented by the wide ranging Coronavirus legislation. Anyone looking at the bill forensically should ask themselves how many of these measures actually help prevent the spread of the virus or deal with its aftermath.
This crisis of legitimacy also ties in with the historic stratification of the UK workforce between those with relative autonomy to choose when and how to do certain tasks and those who have to be in a physical location on a regular basis, and subject to greater disciplining from their employers. Recent technological developments have only served to deepen this division. Despite increasingly desperate attempts to blame ordinary people for the rising death toll, those most abandoned by government policy have every reason to distrust the messenger. Increasing mental health and workload pressures creates an understandable context where people initially saw being sent home as a holiday and, perhaps understandably (given confused government messaging) believing this to be a temporary opportunity. Moreover, if you are forced to work and you’ve already been on say, a London tube, squashed together with many others in the same situation, why would you suddenly be concerned about going to a pub afterwards to wind down? The poorest people in our society have always been treated in casual disregard by their betters.
Regardless of Johnson’s comforting assertion that there is such thing as society, in terms of the viral footage of people stockpiling, neoliberalism has undoubtedly created people who will consider themselves rather than the collective good. However, buying a little extra, which seems to be happening more than stockpiling, can become rational in the absence of government action as supermarkets are left to themselves to act. Much of this has more to do with just in time processes that reduce storage costs and mean that slight changes in consumer behaviour result in overwhelming the system of food supply. It is testament to ordinary people that they have still set up a large number of co-operatives and other voluntary activities, probably to the point where some elderly people are actually desperate for them to leave them alone. Regardless, the focus must be on government inaction and criminal negligence.
Older relations were initially perhaps more sceptical of the threat posed by the virus. Again, we need to look at their lived experience. For one thing, the way they consume news is different, so revelations on social media about the flaws with herd immunity will not have overcome the first message of “taking it on the chin” – the first real response to the crisis. Unsurprisingly, as the government changed its messaging in response to pressures, people have been taking it more seriously. Moreover, many older people are used to being patronised, or treated as appendages who waste valuable resources in terms of the NHS or pensions, both things they have spent their whole lives funding. Many will resent being treated as ‘vulnerable’ and may be resisting this by flouting government suggestions. We will need our older people, both through this crisis and in the aftermath. The “okay boomer” generational politics was always pretty reactionary – now it’s downright lethal.
Although around 10% of those over 65 remain in work and like any worker get a sense of social wellbeing from being skilled or contributing to wider society, the main reason for this ill treatment is that they are, in general, not seen as labourers and are thus less useful to the system of generating profits. The only basis on which future provision has value to capitalism is in signalling to the current generation of workers that there will be some security after work.
Despite the predictable bounce in approval ratings in the early stages of lockdown, the crisis of legitimacy continues unabated. It will re-emerge, in unforeseeable and erratic ways.
The government’s response is jeopardising our safety and while our history shapes us it does not determine our collective response. Hold the government to account and keep pushing for safety, economic security and the maintenance of democratic freedoms. The crisis of legitimacy creates increasing volatility within our national politics and this government may well be about to see the cost of their many betrayals.
Picture: UK Government