The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin was said to have remarked that “there are decades when nothing happens, and weeks when decades happen.” In every period of acute crisis this apocryphal quote returns to public life – illuminating the fragility of our social structures and the beliefs that underpin them. As if by clockwork, the political responses to the coronavirus pandemic has the phrase dusted down once more by journalists as it becomes apparent that a drastic shift in public perceptions and policy priorities that has taken place in Britain during the past month.
In normal times, capitalism engenders a profound sense of alienation within most working people. Most people are separated from the true value of objects and are distant from power or influence. They participate in life as cogs in a machine that doesn’t operate for their benefit; this creates a dulled sense of engagement and autonomy among individuals, who are subject to complex, stratified social hierarchies which they have little influence over.
In his classic social realist novel Love on the Dole, the Salfordian novelist Walter Greenwood described this feeling in heartbreaking detail. Through the perspective of one of the book’s protagonists, the unemployed engineering worker and self-taught Marxist Larry Meath, the book muses on the services and activities that were once available to Larry before he lost his job:
Money. ‘Ah may as well be in bloody prison.’ He suddenly wakened to the fact that he was a prisoner. The walls of the shops, houses and places of entertainment were his prison walls; lacking money to buy his way into them the doors were all closed against him. That was the function of doors and walls; they were there to keep out those who hadn’t any money.
In a way that we haven’t witnessed since the Second World War, the current crisis has created a profound shift in the attitudes of many millions of people. Tribune recently reported on the Spirit of Salford Network, an initiative driven by Labour councillors to unite volunteer relief efforts across the city. This vast network has not only created a thriving body for civically-minded Salfordians to offer their support to the wider community, but has illuminated drastic shifts in the basic ways that people are discussing the material resources of society, their allocation and distribution, and how the public are expected to interact with them.
A charming, slightly eccentric suggestion from Spirit of Salford’s Facebook group encapsulates this changing attitude. In a post which garnered hundreds of responses and generated detailed discussion, one Salford resident proposes the effective requisitioning of ice cream vans to help distribute food parcels to those in need:
Just to chuck a thought out there, how many parents at times dread the ice cream man’s melody but the kids love. Maybe this melody could be utilised in a completely different way. Instead of stocking the van with ice cream and lollies, stock up with essential stuff for the elderly and isolated. Ice cream man drives and a volunteer in the back to deliver to the persons door. How would the isolated people know assistance is there? The ice cream van melody.
The suggestion may be impractical. But placed amongst hundreds of other suggestions for repurposing private property, businesses and spaces for the fight against coronavirus, it indicates a fundamentally radical reassessment of the nature of goods and materials within our society, and how they can be best put to use. To many, the world ordinarily appears closed off, belonging to others and accessible through monetary transactions only. However, this international crisis is opening the imaginations of millions to ways in which they might participate more fully in society, accessing the resources they see around them and using them to fight the virus.
Spirit of Salford’s Facebook page, as well as other community social media pages, are awash not only with suggestions for requisitioning goods and services for the fight against the virus, but also with offers of mutual aid and assistance. Within a few days of Spirit of Salford launching, around 700 people signed up to be volunteers. Social media is also flooded with tributes to key workers, who are still working throughout the quarantine period. This is not limited to NHS staff, but also the bin-men, the shelf stackers and care workers on whom our dependence has been so clearly defined in the past month.
Nationally, the £330 billion loan guarantee package put forward by Rishi Sunak has obliterated the neoliberal constraints which have been placed around national spending for the past 40 years. Labour is rightly providing opposition and scrutiny over areas of this spending, but it can’t be denied that the current investment provided by the government exceeds the much-ridiculed proposals made by Labour at the last election. If nothing else, this illustrates quite clearly that the only limit to our capacity for change is our political will and our imaginations.
On top of this, the embedded cultural perspectives of neoliberalism are already failing to survive the pandemic, even at this early stage of its spread. The word “solidarity” has entered the national lexicon, and the potential for the cultural and economic transformation of our country is huge.
But the Left must tread carefully. Pushes for voluntary efforts have led to inertia amongst of sections of the Left – implicitly distrustful of social reliance on unpaid, voluntary work. But the desire to give to one’s community is the most basic tenet of solidarity, and such a fundamentally humane response to crisis, that any attempt to dull public enthusiasm is likely to backfire.
The practised behaviour of critiquing and finding fault in new government proposals also runs the risk of appearing cynical in the face of significant spending on behalf of government, and what appears to be a genuine willingness to tear up the legacy of fiscal constraints that have dominated British domestic policy for the past decade. Constructive and incisive criticism will be key in this era of national solidarity. Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Labour’s frontbench have navigated the line quite well, conceding appreciation for more ambitious aspects of the government’s spending plans while offering suggestions on reform for the many who have been left out.
The momentum of public solidarity, the collapse of the private sphere and the engagement of so many millions socially-minded Brits could, if nurtured effectively, yield results. Labour leadership hopeful Rebecca Long-Bailey’s tried to recognise this with her suggestion of a National Food Service to co-ordinate the production and distribution of food across the nation, a well-measured, radical policy initiative which – outside of the present political environment – would never have the slightest chance of being seriously discussed.
But equally, the spirit and enthusiasm of the current moment could collapse if not encouraged and nurtured carefully. Mutual aid is far from the preserve of the Left: in recent years, fascist groups such as Golden Dawn in Greece have colonised this space far more effectively than comparable Left organisations and used it to drive a divisive racist agenda. Reports of anti-Chinese and South East Asian racism have already begun to emerge; if the economic downturn and food supply shortages continue in the medium to long-term, the initial energy seen amongst the public could quite easily turn to cynicism, fatigue and anger.
We need to develop a discourse which recognises the often clumsy and fledging articulations of a different perspective on our economic system; that harnesses and gives credence to the best elements of the participatory spirit which is developing across so many areas of the UK.
We need to recognise the radical potential in the community spirit and opening of imaginations for so many members of the public. In all the plurality, impracticality and apparent strangeness of many of these suggestions, they reflect a rare opportunity for mass creativity and social engagement.
It will be the job of the Left to ensure that such perspectives on the world are not limited to periods of crisis; that social purpose and solidarity are not the preserve of pandemics, but are sustainable and practical philosophies on which to sustain a society in perpetuity.