Expressions of mass public solidarity have been a major feature of the pandemic era. Though these are complex moods, subject to manipulation by neoliberal forces, socialists should take courage from them argues Chloe Maclean.
‘We are all in this together’ we are asked to believe. We know that not to be the case in terms of experiences during this pandemic – who is able to self isolate and who is not? Who is safe in their home and who is not? Who is keeping their jobs and who is not? Who can access Covid-19 tests or PPE? Who can access the NHS? Who is dying? Who is taking on the extra caring work? We know that those in poor communities are twice as likely to die as those in any other community. We know people from BME backgrounds are 4 times as likely to die as white people. And we can already hear the signals that, as predicted, it will be the ordinary people and the poor who will pay for the bailout of capitalism through austerity, and whatever programme of ‘recovery’ is finally unveild by the elite. Yet, I think many people are embracing a spirit of solidarity that is embedded in those words ‘we are all in this together’.
At the beginning of March, when the UK government was advising ‘wash your hands’ as the method of avoiding covid-19, many people looked to what was happening in China and Italy, and took it upon themselves to begin the process of social distancing and self-isolating – particularly those who were older or had underlying health conditions. In response to the increasing number of people self-isolating for their own protection, Covid-19 support groups were rapidly appearing on Facebook. These support groups usually cover a particular area within a city or town and are spaces where people can ask for help or offer help such as picking up messages or prescriptions, chatting to someone in isolation over the phone, providing advice on how to claim benefits, and supplying details of job vacancies. Within Edinburgh community groups such as Low-Income Families Together (LIFT) and HelpingHands have organised and delivered thousands of meals and food parcels to families in need across the city. Importantly, these groups have been created organically by people in their own communities who want to share mutual support.
Alongside these more formal acts of solidarity, smaller ones are occurring in the streets we live in. I have seen more of my neighbours than ever before. There’s a calm warm buzz in the street of people scattered in doorways, pavements and roads talking away to one another. They are desperate to speak to each other, to have a fresh face to talk to while we are experiencing a time of minimal face-to-face contact. These conversations involve people checking in on each other, often offering each other help – 81 year old Willy who lives on his own can’t go down the street without a dozen people offering to pick-up his messages for him. The truth is, the conversation he has with his neighbours is what he values most. Neighbours put rainbows in the window to thank the NHS and teddy bears in the window to entertain children doing bear hunts. When we go out to clap on a Thursday night, we all wave to each other. These small things matter. Because of covid-19 people in my street are building relationships with one another, many of which didn’t exist before.
This feeling has at its heart kindness, empathy, and unity – it is the socialist principle of solidarity. How far do these feelings extend? Are there borders to the community feeling being created? And who are the ‘others’ positioned on the outside of our community borders that we see as being ‘in it together’ with? This is where an ideological fight of socialism, neoliberalism, and fascism is taking place. The fascists are grounding these borders of community spirit on ethnic lines. They use covid-19 as a rationale for expelling migrants claiming that they drain our services, blaming ‘non-British’ forms of culture within Scotland and Britain for disease spreading, blaming China, and using covid-19 as a rational for closed borders to immigration. All of this, of course, whilst NHS staff from migrant backgrounds disproportionately die to save lives across the UK.
Community is oppositional to neoliberal individualistic ideals, yet, the neoliberals are drawing on this community spirit to further normalise the idea of charity – that we can and should choose to give when we want to. We have seen this valorised through Captain Tom Moore, a 100 year old man who walked laps of his garden to raise money for the NHS, and the thousands of people completing the ‘Run 5k for NHS charities’ hosted by, of all NHS villains, Virgin Money. Neoliberalism has set acts of charity as the parameters of being ‘in it together’ where ‘community’ becomes an isolated individual act of support, but also of compliance. The normalisation of charity can open up the possibilities of reduced state funding of the NHS and social security, and increased privatisation. There is no room in this version of community for sharing ideas within the community, building community capacities, and creating community solutions.
Yet, for many of the individuals who do engage in raising money for charity, or who clap for the NHS without engaging too much in the politics of the NHS, they have a kind and collective spirit at the heart of their actions – a spirit that can be transferred to socialist ways of thinking. The spirit of wanting to help our community is a spirit central to socialism. As such, tapping into this spirit is a starting point for presenting alternative socialist solutions not just for covid-19, but for society beyond covid-19. There is an evident desire for collectivity amongst a large part of the population.
The left should not dismiss this spirit as naivety and hypocrisy. In some cases it may well be, but none of us were born a perfect all-knowing socialist, and none of us are. We all have room to learn, but certain conditions need to be there for socialist thinking to emerge. One of those conditions is the community spirit that is becoming visible during this pandemic in all its contradictory forms. Another is bringing an alternative socialist narrative for those communities to engage with. If we overlook the elements of community spirit emerging just now, then we have given up our ground in the ideological battle over community spirit, and we lose those communities.
Amongst all the shit, the building of community relations and collective spirit is a reason to be hopeful.
Image: Tim Dennell