We have no idea how long this pandemic will last, but there is no time to spare in the fight for what comes next. In these coming months or years, passivity is not an option for anybody who supports social, environmental and economic justice. It has been said repeatedly that things will never be the same again, but historical precedent suggests otherwise. Crises of this magnitude do not always guarantee lasting, positive change.
The idea that things could go back to how they were before Covid-19 struck might seem absurd to people at the moment. The high priests of neoliberalism, who for forty years preached that the market always allocates resources more efficiently than the state, are now utterly discredited, their authority nullified by the presence of panic-buying mobs outside of Tesco and the frontline Nurses who are forced to film tearful pleas for food. Surely, given the scale and all-encompassing nature of this crisis, future government policy can no longer ignore the fact of grossly underpaid health professionals, or the sickening inadequacy of state welfare, or indeed refer to immigrants who work for the NHS (and are currently on the frontline of the coronavirus struggle) as ‘low-skilled’.
History, however, teaches us that what is likely to happen next is as follows: the establishment casts an illusion of a just resolution to the crisis, pays lip service to the appropriate people where necessary, and ultimately returns us to a socio-economic system that rewards the wealthy and impoverishes the great majority. Indeed, our current government is comprised of people who are used to crisis management: arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg is one such disaster capitalist; as an advisor to the multi-billion Somerset Capital investment management firm he stands to profit enormously from Britain’s severance of ties to the Single Market. Similarly, in the United States, Trump has tasked Mike Pence with leading the government response to Covid-19: Pence was the chair of the Katrina group in 2005, who profited from the destruction reaped by the Hurricane. The emergency measures introduced by the British government last week are welcome; but if the past hundred years are anything to go by, the chances of these socialistic policies being retained beyond the crisis is very slim.
A century ago, soldiers returning from the First World War were promised a ‘land fit for heroes’ by the government. The cataclysmic nature of the war had changed everything, and yet the promises were swiftly dropped in the face of the 1921 recession. Those who had survived the dysentery, shells and machine guns of the western front returned home to squalor, mass unemployment and poverty. Ten years later, capitalism collapsed. Excessive speculation and borrowing for the acquisition of stock lead to a sudden fall of share prices on Wall Street, triggering the Great Depression. British exports collapsed, leading to mass unemployment and starvation. In both instances, Britain’s establishment, ideologically wedded to nostalgic Edwardian capitalism, had succeeded in stifling any radical change that might have threatened the interests of capital, despite a clear shift in the zeitgeist.
Fast forward to 2008, and capitalism once again collapsed. Although the short-term cause was the subprime mortgage crisis, the true causes of the recession were more structural: the model of finance-led growth had collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. Many on the left believed that the bell was tolling for neoliberalism, and that a drastic reshaping of the economy was nigh. The establishment, however, successfully ran a narrative that was as beautifully simple as it was outrageously false: the high government deficits were not caused by bank recapitalisation, but state profligacy. The banking crisis had become a sovereign debt crisis. The epic lie that government debt is comparable to household debt propelled professional conman David Cameron into power in 2010, and he proceeded to slash state spending at a rate that would have made Thatcher blush. Society paid a huge price. 2008 should have been a reckoning for the bankers, whose incessant greed had brought about the biggest recession in living memory. Instead, it became a reckoning for the disabled, the poor, immigrants and the unemployed. According to the IPPR, government cuts caused 130,000 preventable deaths. While this was going on, inequality continued to soar.
Britain’s establishment, therefore, has a long history of crisis management that involves protecting their own interests at the expense of social justice. We cannot assume that the Covid-19 crisis will be any different. Indeed, the establishment are already winning the propaganda battle, with most people blaming the behaviour of individuals for the spread of the virus rather than the government’s clear negligence. The Conservatives are seeking to exonerate themselves from the blame of what has been a grossly incompetent response to the coronavirus while simultaneously avoiding a discussion on how their criminal underfunding of the NHS has left Britain uniquely unprepared among developed nations to deal with a pandemic outbreak.
We are living through a historical event, and we must ascribe paramount importance to political action. ‘There is no avoiding the element of arbitrariness… of individual political judgement… at the heart of all politics’, writes Professor Runciman. Covid-19 has laid bare our Hobbesian social contract; our lives are demonstrably at the mercy of political leaders whose judgement, ethics and ability have been left severely wanting. It was recently revealed that the mastermind behind the ‘herd immunity’ government non-strategy in February was none other than the Machiavellian testicle himself, Dominic Cummings: a man with no scientific qualification but an unhealthy interest in eugenics. His reported strategy was, ‘herd immunity, protect the economy, and if that means some pensioners die, too bad’. Attempts to depoliticise this crisis are therefore absurd. Despite Rishi Sunak’s recent budgets, it would be a mistake to think that Johnson’s administration has abandoned neoliberalism. The Conservative party’s theft and adoption of Labour policies that they last year labelled ‘unaffordable’ and ‘communist’ is opportunistic rather than sincere. When this is over, the government will probably announce a token thank you gift to NHS workers. It will be something measly and insulting, like free parking at work, or a small one-off bonus. The Daily Mail and the other propaganda papers will laud it up as a great giveaway, and the world will go on as it was before. NHS staff will continue to be crushed by the double whammy of insurmountable stress and chronic low pay. Priti Patel, the human smirk, will press ahead with her immigration plans which class Nurses as ‘low-skilled’ workers. The left must not allow this to happen.
Historical precedent is not entirely without optimism. In 1945, Britain elected a radical, transformative socialist government after the Second World War. Life for the great majority improved dramatically: the welfare state was bolstered, the NHS was created, homes were built, and poverty precipitously declined. It preceded what has been coined ‘the golden age of capitalism’, where inequality was relatively low, growth was steady, and living standards increased year on year for all sections of society. Why did 1945 buck the trend? It was the same reason why arch-neoliberal and bourgeoise tyrant President Macron has been forced to adopt socialist policies in his response to Covid-19: a strong, influential, organised and disciplined left. In the years leading up to the war, trade union membership in Britain increased by 43%. Labour’s messaging in the election was concise and strictly materialist in its outlook: it identified an enemy (business who had profited from the 1918 peace at the expense of the working class) and had working, concrete proposals stemming from the Beveridge report of 1943.
Obviously, victory in today’s struggle cannot be achieved at the ballot box. The left looks certain to lose control of the Labour party leadership this Saturday, and we are, in any case, probably five years away from the next general election. The most effective tool at the disposal of the left, namely public protest, is lost to us in this strange era of social isolation. But we can use the opportunity to organise, exchange information, educate one another, join trade unions and unite around a set of progressive demands. For starters, the NHS ‘internal market’ must remain firmly in its grave, and any notion of future privatisation must die with it. The government’s smoke and mirror policies like homing rough sleepers must be made into a reality. Rail franchises that have had their losses nationalised must remain in public ownership and have the profits nationalised too. The immense power of landlords must be broken through rent strikes now that they are vulnerable. Emergency measures like income support must be made permanent: this is only a logical response to automation. The cruel benefits regime must be replaced by a Universal Basic Dividend. Though wounded by last year’s general election, the left must be as relentless in our fight for the future as we must be in our fight to support workers, patients and our friends and family throughout this pandemic. We owe as much to the people who have tragically died, including the brave doctors and nurses who were sent to the frontline without protective equipment. Covid-19 represents the gravest threat to capitalism of our lifetimes, and a historic crisis is also a historic opportunity. We must not cede any ground: the future is ours to seize.