Monday 4 January 2021

A Sociology of Tory Covid Short-Termism

He tried wriggling, he tried avoiding. He even went on national television and urged parents to send their children to school. But at last, with the weight of public opinion bearing down on him Boris Johnson was forced to announce the new national lockdown. Everyone is to stay at home apart from exercise, essential shopping, or work where it is absolutely necessary they go in. Schools, colleges, and universities are shut, and the government are pulling out all the stops to get the four highest at-risk groups vaccinated so we might return to the broken tiers system following half term in February. Lest we forget the disaster of the new, more infectious Covid variant is a product cooked up by this government's half-arsed approach since the Summer. Their refusal to take matters seriously gave the virus ample opportunity to circulate, mutate, and come back to bite us.

The timing of the announcement underlines their levity. Take schools, for example. Because Johnson dithered and delayed, just like last time, parents and teachers are left scrambling trying to organise at-home classes, and thanks to the lack of clarity in the Prime Minister's announcement he failed to mention whether schools would stay open, like last March, for children at risk or with key worker parents. It was also an announcement offering zero reassurance to other workers. Will small businesses be supported? How about the millions of self-employed Rishi Sunak purposely let fall through the gaping holes of his safety net? Are the government going to support colleges and universities left out of pocket by its late announcement, or are we carrying on letting entire sectors implode? Even by the standards set by a decade of ruinous Conservative governments, this is utterly, utterly pitiful. No matter where they set the benchmark for awfulness, it can - and does - always get lower.

Why though? This government has spent the better part of the last year failing and, not entirely coincidentally, the only accomplishment to its name is permanent damage to the country's economic clout and standing in global politics. It acts like a memory-impaired goldfish, unaware of its activities from fewer than five minutes ago, let alone days, weeks, months in the past. We can talk about Tory incompetence and stupidity, which the Leader of the Opposition has done, but the repeated failures, reticence to take action, and corrupt procurement contracts is more than simple failure. It's not about the Tories being crap.

We must dispel the notion the Tories represent the common interests of business understood in economic terms. Against the established yardsticks: GDP growth, low unemployment, low inflation, healthy export figures, low to no trade deficit, healthy wage growth alongside rising productivity and, thanks to the common sense of recent years, falling public debt, the Tories have failed. During their 10 years in charge they have occasionally invoked some or none of these indicators when it suited, but taken in the round the party's cuts programme and industrial strategy, the most damaging Brexit they could get away with, and inadequate Covid support packages should finally put pay to any suggestion they have the wellbeing of British capitalism as a whole at heart. For one, since the Thatcher years the sectional character of the Tories has grown more stark. Instead of being the voice of business-in-general, they are the condensation of finance and commercial capital (above all, City interests), its attendant property speculators and landlords, big and small, as well as firms that are particularly labour intensive, such as food production and the service sector. Hence why we had Dishy Rishi's Covid-pushing Eat Out to Help Out scheme, and the enforcing of in-person teaching at universities. In both instances, they put core, constituent and sectional interests of their party before public health.

But this doesn't quite cover it. By acting sectionally, they are still able to push the interests of business as a whole in the most crucial aspect: the question of class. A business, any business rests on exploitative relationships in which employees (as a general category) do not receive the full value of the goods or services they produce, and ultimately it's this discrepency which is the root of profit. To ensure working people carry on working, they have to accept the inevitability of workplace authority on pain of dismissal, and be compelled to sell their labour time out of economic necessity. I.e. No salary/wages = unemployment, social security, poverty, ruin. From the very first lockdown in March and announcement of the furlough scheme, the Tories have chipped away at it. They may have uprated Universal Credit by a measly £20/week, but have kept it purposely low so people remain compelled to seek employment, and as soon as they felt able the whole sanctions regime came roaring back. Time and again, Dishy Rishi wanted to limit or cut furlough payments until the iron hand of political necessity forced him to back off. But all the time, the Tories never explicitly told workplaces to close, and happily talked up a mass return to work in the summer. The reason was simple - for them the idea there were people at home paid to do nothing was anathama. For one, this is a privilege reserved for capitalists and landlords. For two, it flew in the face of their ideology because in reality it threatens the very basis of waged labour. All of a sudden, their idea of work incentives were upended and the notion people weren't subject to the petty tyranny of management, and therefore its discipline, was very worrisome indeed. Sunak tried mitigating this by tying furlough to one's employment from the off, but all said and done he could only go so far. Therefore, the preference the Tories have for short lockdowns and starting everything up as quickly as possible reflects the pressure they feel acutely to getting class relationships back to how they were - the longer they leave it, the more difficult reasserting discipline will be. Reasserting it, ensuring employees don't have ideas above their station is an interest all business share.

This brings us to the more neglected point, their short-termism. Even within the pressures on Covid-19 management described above, Johnson, Hancock, Williamson and the rest could have done a better job preparing the country for the new lockdown. Instead, we had another screeching u-turn even though they have privileged access to the data, the modelled trajectories, and the forecasts based on enacting different scenarios. Incompetence? Undoubtedly, but one inseparable from Tory statecraft. Considering the last 10 years (again), apart from their programme of cuts and the equal marriage move, Dave and Osborne were fundamentally reactive politicians which led to increasingly risky gambles. Character defects? No, short-termism this endemic was based on their reading of Tory party fortunes. Facing a perceived danger from Labour and the nightmare of UKIP eroding its base, plus keeping its own house in order and retaining the loyalty of the majority of business, living day-to-day was entirely understandable, to the point of subordinating policy to nice headlines. Starting out, Theresa May appeared to break with this by offering a long-term vision of an authoritarian, one-nationist Britain, but once she lost her majority her primary concern was keeping the party together as a going concern. With the Liberal Democrats nowhere and Labour then under new management, there was no other political outlet for any section of business apart from her imperilled party. She succeeded, but saving the party and her class's political bacon destroyed her career. And then there is Johnson who, rightly, identified Brexit as the glue for a viable electoral coalition and subordinated everything to it, even if it meant destroying his party's liberal/remain-minded wing, rhetorically threatening the rule of law, and engaging in the most damaging posturing. It worked too.

Habits of mind have a great deal of inertia, especially in collective enterprises where organisations rests on certain common senses and tradition. But its about the worst thing for managing pandemics. In addition to the interests the Tory party articulates, its strategy is blighted by the party default for short termism. Used to lurching from one daily crisis to the next for so long, it is now incapable of the most modest of medium term planning. Hence the dog's dinner we have in front of us and, in all likelihood, what will be a premature lifting of this third lockdown. A situation, worryingly, bound to bode ill for millions and threatens us all.


Jack Ketch said...

Absolutely spot on analysis. Really glad to have come across your blog.

BCFG said...

The Chinese had the right idea, strict lockdown enforced at the neighbourhood level. Plenty of people acting like responsible citizens and reporting covidiots/virus terrorists. Plenty of proper test and trace, i.e. once you trace you ensure they don't go anywhere!

Contrast that with here and our 'less draconian' measures and what do you get, huge death tolls, a more virulent strain emerging, lockdown over christmas and into the New Year and meanwhile in authoritarian China they danced in the streets on New Years eve free of the virus, while we sit in our houses wondering if we will be next.

I think I am in favour of draconian measures please.

So here is my plea, if you see a covidiot neighbour, please report them and hope the authorities deal with them appropriately.

Unfortunately we have yet to consider shooting these terrorists. Maybe if the next mutation is worse then that option will finally be on the table.

Let the motto be: Snooping saves lives!

Claire Jones said...

The gvnmnt knew by 18th December that a) new variant Covid was 50% - 70% more contagious and b) hospital admissions were rising. Given a and b there is absolutely NO REASON WHATSOEVER why hospital admissions would either reduce or level off in December and EVERY REASON to believe they would carry on rising VERY FAST. This is exactly what happened. And yet the gvnmnt did nothing.

Admissions rose during December until they reached the same level as spring 2020 and then overtook the spring rate first by 10%, then 20% then 30%. Johnson finally called for a full lockdown on Jan 4th when admissions were 44% HIGHER THAN SPRING !! Please tell me just HOW this tribe of idiots can say they are protecting the NHS when they sat back, fully availed of all this data, for so long, and allowed the situation to become so bad before acting?

Blissex said...

«as well as firms that are particularly labour intensive, such as food production and the service sector.»

That is also and largely because capital intensive firms are more easily "infected" by trade unions, and labour intensive service locations are often widely dispersed, making "infection" by trade unions harder.

«so people remain compelled to seek employment»

Please please please enough with the "leftoidism": accusing the Conservatives of this is making them look good to most workers, who got to work.

The point of the nasty social insurance is to compel people to seek *whatever* employment, that is to give *every* worker lower negotiating power.

«for them the idea there were people at home paid to do nothing was anathama»

That is also again what most workers think too.

«Theresa May appeared to break with this by offering a long-term vision of an authoritarian, one-nationist Britain»

Looks she was quite to the left of Keir Starmer, with his apparent long-term vision, of an authoritarian, thatcherite Britain.

Blissex said...

«this government's half-arsed approach since the Summer. Their refusal to take matters seriously gave the virus ample opportunity to circulate, mutate, and come back to bite us.»

But this is quite an incomplete and optimistic analysis, because their refusal to take matters seriously is ideologically motivated and has nothing to do with lock-downs because:

* There are only two ways to control an infectious disease, and they are: pervasive test-and-trace and isolation of the infected, or hard lock-down to isolate everybody as potentially infected.

* Of the two ways, "pervasive test-and-trace and isolation of the infected" is much more effective and much cheaper for both business and workers.

The ideological issues that thatcherites/reaganistas have with "pervasive test-and-trace and isolation of the infected" are:

* It requires the state to raise taxes to fund in advance spare stocks and spare capacity in the health system, and to also fund mandatory test-and-trace and mandatory isolation of the infected when the contagious disease arrives.

* Even worse, the success of state organized "pervasive test-and-trace and isolation of the infected" would demonstrate that the state can do effective collective solutions to collective problems like an epidemic.

The ideology of the thatcherites/conservatives is that

* There are no collective issues (other than protecting property rights), so infectious diseases only require individual solutions.

* The individual solution is that it is comfortable and safe to self-isolate in your large house with ample gardens or your private island, if you don't need to work or can work remotely (managers, traders, professionals, ...), and the servants can deliver everything to your door; else it is your failure for not being willing (because of imprudence or lack of means) to avoid exposing yourself to infection.

theOnlySanePersonOnPlanetEarth said...

"for them the idea there were people at home paid to do nothing was anathama"

I don't agree with this, its so 2019. I think lots of people were thinking, why is that person going out when his work isn't essential.

But if 'workers' were thinking this then that shows you the problem right there.