Every generation seems to play out the same old battles. The ancient tussles between the universal needs of humanity and the private needs of a privileged few; between our instincts to altruism and the drive towards greed; between competition and cooperation; between equality and ingrained class differences.
Crises, such as the present coronavirus pandemic, often reveal the tensions between these values and the deeper fault lines in our society. They amplify the social, economic and political problems that have been bubbling away under the surface for decades. The last time we saw these fault lines so starkly was in 2008, after the financial crash.
It is surely already clear to everyone as a consequence of the virus what we as socialists have known for a long time: that our economic, political and social systems are deeply fractured. The effects of the virus fester, expand and creep out of the crevices of these structures, feeding off the diminished community resilience and fragmented public services which are the results of decades of austerity and gross inequality.
It also does something else even more profound. The virus reveals the contours of a society that has rewarded the richest but penalised the poorest.
We now know with profound clarity that the health of our society depends most on those – cleaners, refuse collectors, call centre workers, carers, delivery drivers, shop workers, food producers – who have been so devalued over recent decades.
We now know that the attacks on public services and on the living standards of public service workers should never have happened. They uphold the highest values of service to others in their everyday lives.
Coronavirus has made us see how much our lives depend on public services, and intervention in the so-called ‘free’ market. And while we were told for more than a decade that there was no ‘magic money tree’ to pay for services, the truth is that our very way of life depends upon the massive level of public expenditure that has suddenly been found in the twinkling of an eye.
And when it comes to the question of public health itself, highlighted by the virus, we can see how your life chances are profoundly impacted by your position in society. It was in February, just before the coronavirus had really begun to impact Britain, that we were reminded once again of the profound divisions in life expectancy in the country.
The ten year anniversary Marmot Review laid bare the declining trend to longer life in working class communities, even as medicine has advanced. In my council area of Wakefield the average adult male healthy life expectancy is 58.6 years. In Surrey it is 68.6 years.
Business and the State
The prime minister’s unprecedented state intervention has been lauded by business and progressives alike. Big government has returned, promising to protect people – if not from the deadly disease, at least from the fallout.
But there are two sides to this coin, and we shouldn’t ignore the manner in which the state’s reaction to Covid-19 is being organised. There were a number of ways in which public support might have been facilitated. But what appears to be happening is a fusion of the state and economic power structures. What some are calling the end of neoliberalism may well be its renewal.
Until recently the state appeared to be almost subordinated to economic interests: what in the past has been called ‘corporate capture.’ Yet in periods of crisis or threat the state suddenly emerges as the dominant agent in civil society.
This is not just a British phenomenon; it is global. This same fusion is much more advanced in those nation states that have seen the greatest intensification of neoliberalism, namely the US and Western Europe, as well as the UK.
That is why governments – as in the aftermath of 2008 – have bailed out neoliberal capitalism yet again. In the US, Trump has signed the biggest rescue plan in the country’s history.
In doing so, who are we really bailing out? The government is not paying employees wages directly, as some have argued it should. Instead it has set out measures to provide assistance through employers, and this has given additional strength to the bosses at many places of work.
I have seen first hand people left with no choice but to lose an income or go to work in extremely unsafe conditions. At one retail warehouse in the constituency I represent, management closed the canteen to avoid social contact, and then told the workforce to sit on the floor to eat their lunch.
They also erected cardboard barriers between workstations, yet these barriers prevented employees from being able to reach the emergency stop buttons on the line. All the while this company was still allowing people to come to work shoulder to shoulder as they were transported on a special bus service for workers, many of whom feared losing their job and income should they speak out.
Thankfully, due to worker pressure, the support of the local labour movement, community groups and the pressure of public opinion, the company’s hand was forced and this non-essential service was closed.
But even after this victory, these workers will still have to rely on their employers to access funds in the Job Retention Scheme. Like many of today’s workers, many are employed indirectly by an agency, and it is not yet clear how they will secure the necessary financial assistance.
You can see how the structure of government policy has placed power into the hands of the bosses at the expense of the wider community interest at a time of national crisis.
A Common Humanity
In this crisis, there are two wholly different ethical principles in competition.
On the one hand, you have the principles of the market and of economic power operating in the private interest of Big Capital. But on the other you have the workforce, the community, and civil society coming together in the wider interest of the people as a whole.
You can see the same combat between the old ways and the new every day inside the NHS. Tens of thousands of health workers prepared to risk their own health in the wider interest of humanity despite being denied the protective equipment they desperately need. And then there are the almost 750,000 people selflessly volunteering to engage alongside the NHS in the wider interest.
On the other hand, multinational companies – Big Pharma, for example – are likely to profit from the coronavirus crisis. And many will have been surprised to discover that about a quarter of all ventilators, which are essential to treatment, were located in the private health sector.
It doesn’t need to be like this. Action might have been taken by the state to ensure the research, vaccines and medical equipment produced is the possession of humanity as a whole, and not held for ransom by the wealthiest.
And while the current level of state support is relatively generous and breaks self-imposed restrictions on government spending that have wreaked havoc on our public services, the question of who will pay for all of this in the end is a political one – just as it was after 2008. Crucially, public spending now may later be used to justify public cuts as well as further attacks of wages and salaries.
What we are seeing now is almost certainly not the permanent expansion of the state and public realm, but a temporary growth followed by a sharper contraction. The public relief programme for coronavirus could easily become the justification for another decade of austerity.
For now, though, one thing is immediately clear: only a collective effort of every single person acting in a socially responsible way can protect each of us from the infection. This is the central ethical principle of our socialism, and it is where the general interests of our common humanity in the face of a pandemic.
Think about the homeless. We were told that there was little we could do about this problem except at the margins. There wasn’t enough money and there weren’t enough residential units. But suddenly it is being tackled. And the reason is that people out on the streets are vulnerable to the virus which they then may pass on to the rest of us in due course.
We can beat this virus, and we should not be deflected from this purpose. But let’s be clear: only collective solutions will work.
Let us stand shoulder to shoulder with those who have been prepared to sacrifice much on behalf of the rest of us. A new world is plainly visible. It’s happening all around us as we watch people rise to the challenge. We can win this fight against coronavirus. But will we then win the peace?