Individualism in the midst of a pandemic

Understanding lockdown resistance

As Boris Johnson licks his wounds, Paul Demarty examines the mounting discontent with the handling of the pandemic

As expected, the government survived its crunch vote on the next phase of Covid-19 controls.

On December 2, the bulk of the country’s urban areas (and the suburbs of Kent) woke up in a tightened ‘tier 3’ arrangement, with London, Liverpool and most rural areas in tier 2, and only the Isle of Wight, Scilly Isles and Cornwall back in tier 1. The real upshot of the process, however, is the stark exposure of how far the popular tolerance for these pieces of public health theatre is eroding.

The result of the December 1 parliamentary vote, however, almost reads like a typo: 291 for; 78 against. More than 40% of MPs were missing in action - thanks to Kier Starmer’s decision to whip his MPs to abstain. Had he whipped them to vote against, we would have seen a humiliating defeat (in the event, 16 Labour MPs defied his orders to vote against, as did Jeremy Corbyn - who, of course, remains outside the parliamentary Labour fold). Instead, Johnson has a humiliating victory.

Rebellious Tory MPs are partly driven by political ideology - as good little Thatcherites, they despise the ‘big state’ measures foisted upon the plainly reluctant front bench. But they are also under pressure from their constituents. Social distancing, like war, is basically inhuman; we can only stand so much of either before despair kicks in. Many of Johnson’s MPs are not in safe Surrey seats, but in ‘red wall’ constituencies that tenuously swung to the Tory column over Brexit a year ago; seats in the same areas of the country that were hung out to dry during the last wave of tiered restrictions.

Meanwhile, the economic devastation continues to worsen. As MPs debated local lockdowns, Philip Green’s Arcadia empire went into administration, with the knock-on effect that attempts to save the Debenhams department store chain collapsed, with the loss of 12,000 jobs to follow. The one advantage bricks and mortar fashion retailers have over Boohoo, ASOS and friends is that you can try to squeeze yourself into that sweater before paying for it; but rubbing yourself all over things that may be touched by others is no longer a good idea, and so these chains - already dicing with death - are put out of their misery. But those are just the headlines. At the capillaries of economic life, innumerable small businesses - many (building contractors and the like) dependent on larger, threatened concerns, and many others (pubs, restaurants) utterly impractical under present circumstances - anxiously wonder how much more of this they can take.

So some combination of the two motivations for Tory rebellion are at work. Rebel MPs are scared for their jobs; but they are also aware that this is a once-in-a-century opportunity to expose ‘big government’ as tyrannical and inhuman. They could not do it, ironically, if various anti-‘big government’ politicians like Boris Johnson were not forced into these emergency measures, which (being forced precisely on Tories) result in plum contracts for old schoolmates and outfits like Serco, all of whom have made a pig’s ear of their jobs.

The unacceptable face of such politics are the open Covid deniers and lockdown defiers, 150 of whom were arrested in London over the weekend, waving the usual selection of libertarian, anti-vaxx and QAnon banners. Even if they do not follow such cranks, however, many millions will be open to the saner version of the same message - lockdown is a disaster and, however bad a third or even fourth wave is, it could surely not be worse than more of what we have got.

Stateside, meanwhile, things go from bad to worse. Infections and deaths skyrocket; Donald Trump’s Covid tsar, Scott Atlas, has walked out a month and a half ahead of time. His name may sound oddly like it might be on the birth certificate of some entirely forgotten member of the X-Men, but Mr Atlas was in fact the flunky Trump got in to serve as a shield between himself and people who knew what the hell they were talking about. No doubt his disappearance from the scene will be the subject of fervent discussion in the QAnon-type alternative reality of American politics. In the judiciary, meanwhile, the Supreme Court supermajority, ie, with Amy Coney Barrett on board, has ruled for the first time - against the decision of New York to ban religious gatherings. The arguments for striking the ban down are reasonable in isolation: the majority decision cites wild inconsistencies between different ordinances. But that is not enough to convince us, as we shall see.

Dangerous waters

How can things have been so comprehensively screwed up?

We might compare matters with another contemporary threat to civilisation. From a Marxist point of view, it is quite straightforward why capitalism is exceptionally bad at managing the global warming crisis: the system demands endless self-expansion at any cost, which is literally the worst thing you can possibly do in response to a problem caused by ruinously wasteful resource consumption - QED.

Capitalism is also intrinsically bad at dealing with pandemics, but the logic here is a little more subtle. The long-term economic tendency is for capital to concentrate; but if we imagine (as plenty of science-fiction authors have) reaching a sort of omega point, where the administration of all world affairs falls into the hands of a single mega-monopoly, it is clear that we imagine something quite indistinguishable from naked bureaucratic tyranny. So we never quite get there, since the political contradictions become unmanageable. In particular, the division of the world into a hierarchy of states means that those states tend to promote ‘their’ firms, including ‘their’ transnationals, against those of competitors: something that has become obvious in the age of Trump.

A high level of coordination is required to deal with pandemics adequately, as well as a generous level of consent from the governed. But the two are in flat contradiction under capitalism.

Coordination must come in a form that benefits the possessors of capital and their castes of flunkies in the professions - but this erodes consent. Consent may be won by insulating weaker sections of capital (and the petty bourgeoisie) from the true verdict of the market - but this disaggregates initiative. This is a pretty terrible combination, and the relative success and failure of states in dealing with Covid-19 has a lot to do with where we find them on this widening gyre.

China has done well - its lamentable initial response apart - because it is still half a Stalinist bureaucratic dictatorship, and its popular consent has yet to erode to the point that the eastern bloc countries reached in the 1980s. South Korea has a high level of capital concentration with a strong state (Samsung alone accounts for 17% of the country’s gross domestic product). Both countries’ repeated recent experiences with similar outbreaks have ensured that there are well-understood plans in place and broad tolerance in the general population for sharp measures.

It barely needs to be said that this is not the case in Britain and America, whose long-standing commitments to neoliberalism resulted in the disaggregation of government functions and the rise of kleptocratic outsourcing outfits - but also caused spectacular implosions of the prevailing political culture four years ago. While Donald Trump is on his way out of office and Brexit is about to be done, one way or the other, both have served as poison pills for bourgeois politics: known disasters that proved impossible to resolve. The anti-mask brigades are overwhelmingly Trump-aligned in the States, and Brexit-Tory in this country. That is evidence enough, in liberal opinion, of their deplorability, as Hillary Clinton might have put it; but it is also evidence that, for all the convulsions since 2016, the political crisis in Anglo-America is hardly over. In our countries, capitalism has devoured its own legitimacy.

In Britain, Labour’s policy of abstention is the sort of ‘good politics’ we have come to expect from Kier Starmer, who - you will remember - was party to the same sort of activity as shadow Brexit minister, and indeed will likely abstain on Brexit votes to come in the near future. It is quite understandable, if basically dishonest: it is better for Labour that attention is focused on the transparent incompetence and nepotism of the government, which has now cost 75,000 British lives.

A principled left would not be comfortable with Starmer’s approach of removing himself from the field of battle to the sniper’s nest. There is a real difference of principle involved, and several differences of nuance that are not less important. The difference of principle is straightforward: the Covid deniers and lockdown protestors - and more diffusely, the Tory sceptics - promote individual liberty as a refuge from state tyranny. Arrayed against them in the current situation are those whose primary motivation is public health, which - as a political concern - inevitably chafes against individual autonomy.

These are dangerous waters for communists. The lockdown protestors were arrested on the basis that political protests have simply been banned tout court for the sake of public safety; and we cannot trust the state apparatuses to kindly give us our rights back any more than David Icke does. What we confront is the limit of viewing these matters as questions of individual rights. The old problem of liberalism asserts itself - you should have liberty, so long as it does not harm another. It is from this point of view that it is ridiculous that young New Yorkers (until the intervention of SCOTUS, at any rate) could go to school with 1,500 other kids, but not to church with (say) 50.

Lowering infection rates is not a logical puzzle, however, but a statistical equation. Any form of human contact to be suspended moves infection numbers the ‘right’ way, independently of any other. The New York authorities evidently felt that the benefit of suspending religious services, multiplied by the likelihood of compliance, added up to greater than the political capital expended. The Supreme Court instead treated it as a matter of logical inconsistency, and that logical inconsistency was popularly understood as unfairness.

Public health emergencies make clear the supremacy of the collective interest; that the supposed emergent benefit of innumerable individual interests is illusory. For example: it is perfectly correct to say that parents have no moral right to deny their children a vaccine for Covid-19, that the state indeed would act morally to take those children into care for long enough to administer the necessary jabs; it is not only their health, or their parents’, but mine and yours that is at issue. It may happen not to be politically wise to actually do such a thing, but that is not because it tramples on anyone’s rights.

The problem for us, as we said above, is further back. Capitalism must generate from time to time - and increasingly as it declines - a political culture of enormous distrust towards the authorities, however ill-defined. The only possible way out is the breaking down of the distinction between ‘the authorities’ and the people, the elimination of the difference of material interest between them and the generalised democratisation of society. Short of such revolutionary transformation, the authorities we actually have - even less openly corrupt authorities than the Trump and Johnson administrations - will always be handicapped in trying to defeat an enemy like Covid-19.