Danny Charles

Danny Charles

Neoliberalism’s war on human agency under coronavirus

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Neoliberalism has operated a contradiction between demands for agency from its subject population, combined with a reality that undermines independent action. Danny Charles charts the mutation of this tension under pandemic measures.

As lockdown loosens, we are coming to terms with the new normalities. People are trying to reconcile various societal and political expectations around what they can, should, or need to do. And within these evolving notions of freedom and personal responsibility lie important questions of agency. Who has it? How is it acquired? And how do power structures enable or constrain it?

In order to engage with this problem, it must be understood within the neoliberal context of the coronavirus crisis. Unprecedented state intervention measures may have crossed traditional lines, but they exist with a view to reaffirm economic disparity. Both Westminster and Holyrood have undertaken policy approaches that empower the capitalist class with the ability to determine ordinary people’s material living and working conditions. From the Tories’ back-to-work agenda that leaves employee protection in the hands of employers, to the SNP’s commitment to backing landlords over tenants, existing power imbalances are being further entrenched. Agency, as represented by power, is being hoarded by a select few.

Part of the intellectual debate around capitalist responses to coronavirus must seek to expose governing bodies’ policy and ideological approaches as cunning and paradoxical. A great simultaneous flaw and achievement of neoliberalism is that it demands agentic thought and action, whilst undermining the capacity for either. And by positing this analysis as applicable to mainstream pandemic politics, we further the justification and demand for radical systemic change.

Let us look at the Westminster government’s ‘5 steps to working safely’ guidance for employers, which at the time of writing had most recently been updated on 19 May. Outlined are proposals that include consulting with trade unions, carrying out risk assessments, and adhering to social distancing measures. These guidelines – and that is all they are – do not pose anything radical, or mark a major shift in workplace power dynamics. They corroborate existing legislation. Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act (1996) states that employees have the right to refuse to work should they deem the conditions unsafe, without fear of being ‘subjected to any detriment’. And employers cannot legally take retributory action against employees who join a trade union or express an interest in joining a trade union.

But do these protections constitute the lived reality for all private sector workers? Of course not. Many workplaces are not unionised, and employers deem unions harmful to economic growth, thus, by grotesque extension; job security. Broadly speaking, businesses determine the value of their employees by virtue of their contribution to, or preservation of, profit; not their interest in improving working conditions at the potential expense of profit. Under capitalism, then, how can employees who unionise remain in their employers’ favour?

In place of trade union presence, companies often seek to internally ‘resolve’ issues through an ameliorative process akin to electoral politics with cross-party commitment to neoliberalism, by proffering largely inconsequential adjustments rather than systemic changes. But suggestion box reforms ultimately leave the decisions in the hands of employers and reduce the capacity of workers to control their material circumstances in any meaningful way. It is these workplaces that suffer most as a result of the Tories’ guidelines. And the accountability vacuum which exists between the state and the private sector means that employers have a great deal of autonomy. Malpractice can, to an extent, go unchecked.

Not only does the government’s back-to-work plan create power imbalance in the workplace, its very conception is one that forces decisions, and thus inhibits choice. How much agency does someone have when they return to work in poor health because not doing so could leave them unable to pay bills or buy food? Does free will truly exist if the receipt of a wage is the condition on which all else is predicated?

Of course, we don’t need to look as far as Westminster for evidence of policy that empowers some and constrains others. Last week saw the SNP reject Andy Wightman’s proposed amendments to the coronavirus bill which sought to protect renters. Having already provided aid for private rental landlords weeks ago, the message from the Scottish government is clear; stabilising the market is a priority over ensuring that renters are not put in financial hardship. Such allegiances are perhaps of little surprise given that just under 20% of SNP MSPs are landlords themselves, with landlords making up 24% of the Scottish Parliament. When criticising Andy Wightman’s proposals in the Chamber, the SNP cited complaints and concerns from Housing Associations. It is deeply troubling that corporate interests are represented in parliament as grounds to oppose legislation seeking a fairer deal for ordinary people. Who exactly do the SNP represent? Who and what do they enable and constrain? Their priorities indicate an unwillingness to redistribute power in ways that threaten existing hierarchical structures. Herein lies the impotence and futility of politics that is committed to neoliberalism.

Additionally, the lack of representation for private and social renters in parliament compared with that of landlords illustrates an over-representation of the capitalist class at a national decision-making level. The fact that status-quo market preservation presides over working class interests in parliament is telling, but the problem stems from a removal of working-class people from the decision-making process itself. A detachment from where agency is determined.

Accepting, for example, Pierre Bourdieu’s theory that agents are at least constrained by their starting points, how can we expect a fair set of starting points if the sphere in which they are determined is one of class imbalance. Our parliamentary arrangement is illusory, and the embodiment of neoliberalism feigning democracy.

Beyond parliament, the Scottish government’s commitment to depriving working people of agency and collective bargaining power during coronavirus is nowhere more evident than in the makeup of their economic recovery team. From feudal landowners to proponents of a privatised energy industry, there is little scope to expect anything radical from their propositions. I suspect that ‘economic recovery’ means making sure businesses run at a profit; something of little meaning to people engaged in wage labour. Could economic recovery mean an effort to achieve full employment and a redistribution of wealth? Not under neoliberalism.

While policy and policy making is itself exclusionary, so too are the approaches to agency that neoliberalism purports for consumption. This has been evident in the ways in which the media and advertising industry present a middle-class reality as the national lockdown experience, despite many people not having the same material options as those depicted in this narrative. These options include access to and ownership of outdoor spaces.

When the mainstream media have positive interactions with the public, it often happens on middle-class suburban streets where the houses have gardens. By contrast, wide shots of people in parks married with eyebrow raised narration is a subtle tool for creating mild panic, and puts an onus on personal responsibility. There is inadequate contextualisation, for one thing, as people could be using parks for numerous reasons. But this blanket approach to personal and social responsibility obscures that. Furthermore, people’s sometimes lax approach to lockdown adherence is not random; it is an extension of the British state’s relatively lax approach to lockdown. Compared to other countries, restrictions have been lighter, and far less stringently enforced. Do people’s actions here not partially reflect state action?

Notice too how media narratives echo wartime rhetoric. The public are asked to exercise agency and make decisions which accelerate a return to ‘normal’. But calls for national unity, togetherness, and everyone uniformly ‘doing their bit’ mean little when the system under preservation is one which thrives on these notions being crushed. We must be rigid in our refusal to let centrist politicians adopt collectivism when it suits them.

Returning to the theory of Bourdieu, let us recognise neoliberal society as a field of competition, and the power of agents in this field as relative to the advantages or disadvantages brought about by their relationship to stratified distributions of power. Westminster and Holyrood have made it clear that power imbalance is key to their plan for responding to this economic crisis. Workers’ and tenants’ capacity for exercising agency is to be determined, in those plans, by the capitalist class, with change contingent on whether proposals impede the market. This is dictatorial capitalism, and as part of the left’s blueprint for action, we must expose its manifestations at every turn.

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