Tuesday 28 December 2021

Critiquing the Anti-Lockdown Left

We've dealt with the grifters. The Tory-friends-of-Covid were looked at. But there's another group that have set their face against pandemic precautions, particularly social distancing, restrictions on movement, closures of services and amenities - particularly hospitality - and quarantine measures. People who, politically speaking, are otherwise sound. For ease of short hand, I'm referring to the anti-lockdown left. This group of comrades, which tend to be London-based, very online, but, politically speaking, otherwise heterodox are critical of Covid precautions that require more than mask wearing. That vaccines are rolling out and large numbers are triple jabbed renders curbs on social mixing obsolete. Not ones to cheer on Boris Johnson, undoubtedly his decision to avoid reimposing new requirements ahead of New Year's Eve was welcome to them.

Different comrades emphasise different points. For some, young people welcoming in 2022 are probably going to be taking greater risks than contracting Covid. Others suggest calling for more precautions is indicative of middle class privilege, as the expectation is still on working class people to bring them their supermarket deliveries and Amazon orders. Meanwhile, independent SAGE - who've done a pretty good job of pushing the science around Covid and the measures required to curb it - is elided with an ideological state apparatus suggesting its "function" is social control. Others criticised the Tories bringing in travel bans and red listing. We've seen comrades claiming that high transmission rates don't matter. Others have bristled at Covid-inspired inroads into civil liberties, while praising successful containment strategies in "socialist" countries like China, Vietnam, and Cuba - policies much more restrictive than anything seen in the UK. And the comrades over at The Popular Pod have just released a series looking specifically at the harms of lockdowns.

What follows is not about point scoring or narcissistic posturing, but trying to come to grips with a trend on the left, its roots, trajectory, and political fall out. As such, it's neither total nor complete nor comprehensive. It sets out not to denounce and attack but persuade.

Let there not be any doubt, after almost two years the use of lockdowns and travel restrictions are a policy failure. The Tories have had ample opportunity to enforce mask mandates to stymie the spread of infection. They could have installed air purifiers in schools and clinical settings, made grants (or, knowing Sunak, loans) for businesses and public sector agencies to install filtration systems in their buildings. Manufacturing capacity could have been expanded to make FFP2 and FFP3 masks and distributed for free. The Tories could have introduced better sick pay, so workers didn't have to choose between their incomes and their health. Instead, their class politics were (and still are) in the driving seat. Johnson's might be an authoritarian project, but his Covid management has been a stop-start cycle of freedoms and restrictions, making future reasonable precautions against surging infections politically and socially difficult to implement. Unfortunately, what has been largely absent is a class analysis on the part of the left, despite providing many of the key policies the Tories co-opted into their pandemic governance. Keir Starmer has proven dreadful and failed to rise to the occasion, whereas other MPs have made the right calls on sick pay, furlough, and Universal Credit this was not incorporated into a joined up analysis that makes sense of where the Tories have crashed and burned, but have also, almost surreptitiously, succeeded.

The beginning of the Coronavirus crisis in March 2020 threatened to open politics up. Under Johnson and before him, Theresa May, the Tories were moving away from the austerity economics the government had pushed the previous half-decade. The massive stimulus such as the job retention scheme, the grants and the loans, and the uprating of social security reminded us that British capitalism is underwritten by the state. For a brief period Sunak superficially had more in common with Gosplan bureaucrats than his pantheon of free market saints. What was particularly worrisome from the standpoint of Tory economics was the challenge Covid posed governance. To put it plainly, the project of different governments has been the naturalisation of the entrepreneurial outlook so it is spontaneous and unquestioning. This cultivation was and is conscious and fully intended by policy makers, even if it was badged as "consumer choice" or "driving up standards". It's now the case practically all public institutions relate to us as bearers of this neoliberal subjectivity, and are in turn governed by metrics that more or less stand in for customer satisfaction. The advantage of promoting these modes of governance in the state's institutions, according to John Major who enthusiastically restructured the civil service along these lines, was that employees, service users, and the agencies themselves would autonomously and more efficiently deliver their "products" than administrative instruction. For all the trumpeting of levelling up and the tacit acknowledgement of market failure, Johnson's "modernisation" is premised upon leaving these strategies of governance intact. And why not? It individuates and atomises, encourages people to look to their own economic, cultural, and social capital, and failure, however that is defined, is a matter of bad luck or insufficient effort or ability. It inculcates an outlook that treats capitalism as the inescapable and normative horizon of social life.

Public health strategies for mitigating Covid cut against these neoliberal logics. The move to homeworking on the part of millions of workers, and the abeyance of work for the furloughed caused sleepless nights on the Tory benches. Management surveillance of performance was always the reality of the self-activating, entrepreneurial worker - hence the government's oft-noted keenness to get workers back at work. But on the more subtle level, Covid mitigation reorients the axis of responsibility. Early in the pandemic, it became common knowledge that masking up wasn't fantastic for preventing one from contracting the virus, but what it did do was prevent the spread of infected droplets. In other words, instead of the onus being on protecting oneself from infection we had a duty to protect others, especially given the prevalence of asymptomatic spread. All of a sudden, the responsible citizen in the age of Covid went from the self-interested and self-regarding individual to being a potential vector in a web of contagion. Our actions were not about risks to ourselves, but risk to others. I was responsible for the health of acquaintances, colleagues, friends, family, etc. and they were responsible for my continued good health too. Covid communitarianism meant those who were clinically vulnerable and/or could not have the vaccine for whatever reason were acknowledged, and that the public health of the group was the guarantee for the public health of the individual.

It's not difficult to see how a solidaristic Covid citizenship poses neoliberal governance and with it the class relations they support a danger. You can have a serious pandemic strategy that puts saving lives first, or a haphazard approach that buttresses the wage relation, rentier and debt relationships, and social security conditionality. Far from being the dictatorial overlords of a NHS-state with Tory characteristics, Johnson's government have gone out of their way to undermine lockdowns and any other mitigation measures. The Autumn and Winter 2020-21 lockdowns were nowhere near as stringent as the first, and the progressive relaxing of precautions, culminating in July's absurd "Freedom Day" and the end of furlough and the UC uplift, progressively shifted the pendulum away from communitarianism. Covid was now a matter of individual self-responsibility, and contracting it was a case of rotten luck or risky behaviour. Why else resist even the most elementary of precautions, namely masking up on public transport, shops, and indoor communal areas? It had nothing to do with loving freedom and liberty, and everything to do with resetting the governance underpinning class relations after the pandemic's initial shock.

The problem with the anti-lockdown left's "critique" of Covid precautions is its fidelity to the state's effort at returning things back to normal. Recommending comrades look to their own individual risk profiles is the advice Johnson, Javid, and the grim coterie of Tory backbenchers are proffering. They make exactly the same arguments about young people having their youth robbed from them, their new-found concern for mental health if people can't socialise, and the tough time businesses and workers in hospitality are facing. Albeit with an anti-authoritarian sheen.

This is not working class politics. Building anti-capitalist capacities is a collective enterprise. It requires the construction of new institutions, new political collectives, rebuilding and strengthening workplace organisation, popular cultures of resistance, and encouraging newly emergent movements. These overlapping efforts and projects can only head in the same direction if there is not just a theoretical appreciation of the solidarity necessary to hold them together, but a substantive politics that encourages it. It's perhaps unsurprising those bits of the left closest to and embedded in the labour movement have had the best approach to Coronavirus. They have put the safety and wellbeing of our class first and raised the necessary demands.

Yet this left libertarian response is not simply a matter of comrades having the "wrong ideas". It has material roots more serious than wanting to go to the pub. Firstly, there is the universal experience of restrictions themselves. These range from inconvenience to the hellish and the tragic. People not seeing loved ones for up to two years, the corrosion of social isolation, not being there when family members and friends needed them. Saying final farewells over Zoom, and unnecessary bereavements because Covid put people off attending medical appointments. A great well of sadness, regret, and bitterness has filled to overflowing for the duration of this crisis, which helps explain why the anger over the Tory Christmas parties is so volcanic. Who cannot empathise with the desire to be free of Covid restrictions, particularly when some of the comrades making the libertarian argument have badly suffered? The second is thanks to the class location of most young people. Disproportionately working in hospitality and retail, and with Sunak's studied refusal to directly support workers in these depressed sectors, restriction-scepticism is straightforwardly the spontaneous reaction to livelihoods under threat from a virus that isn't terribly likely to do them serious harm. It has internalised and fatally resigned itself to no government help, which merely reinforces the scepticism. Surely it's no accident a number of comrades who have made this case now find themselves left media entrepreneurs of some description, and so are subject to similar levels of precarity. The left libertarian critique articulates these sentiments, even if it's not making the relationship between the political position and their class basis explicit.

Covid is going to be with us for a long time and we have to learn about how to cope with it. The question is how we live these lives. Do we tail the government and, despite ourselves, assist them in bedding down their post-pandemic settlement - which looks a hell of a lot like the pre-pandemic settlement? Or do we try something different and proceed from our class analysis of the situation?

Image Credit


Anonymous said...

I think what your analysis lacks is a reflection of the changing conditions.

When an unknown virus was raging through an unvaccinated population, more severe restrictions were important.

Now a 'cold-like' virus is sweeping through a vaccinated population, 'lockdowners' find themselves on the wrong side of the argument, especially when 90 per cent of the severely ill are unvaccinated.

I'm afraid there almost seems a nostalgia on the left for the days of heavy-handed state intervention, and this is not edifying. If Bojo's libertarian 'let the bodies pile high' capitalism was exposed in tooth and claw at the start of the crisis, the left's authoritarian impulse is currently in full throttle.

I think it is this impulse - for the centrality of the state to control the behaviour of a lumpen population (and let's be clear, the majority of its support comes from public sector employees who have not suffered from the same precarity under lockdown as the 'working class') and use any excuse basically to put a spanner in capitalism's works, that is at play now, and it is not very helpful - it is certainly not going to disrupt or moderate capitalism, if that's what you're hoping. As usual, the 'working class' will be the ones to suffer most. That may be the design, but again, it is not very edifying and certainly won't change anything.

The left's response, in general, is increasingly authoritarian these days, from 'woke' to 'lockdown' - it appears to exist to tell people what they cannot do or say, ie to modify behaviour. It has been quite successful but only, essentially, serves itself - captalism remains, the only difference is that it becomes ever more restrictive, in the direction of the Russian or Chinese models. Is that worth fighting for?

Unknown said...

But capitalism and our successive recent governments have produced a "lumpen" population conditioned to a certain mode of behaviour and belief system. People may believe that they are free to live their lives as they wish, but this is just an illusion.

Dialectician1 said...

“Yet this left libertarian response is not simply a matter of comrades having the ‘wrong ideas’.”

Yes it is. Around the 1970s the left went off on a bizarre trajectory, they began to junk Marx and instead turned their attention towards a critique of ‘modernism’. Class was dead, they said. The working class no longer had the stomach for class struggles - never mind revolution. Other, more exotic, ‘non-elite’ groups became the focus of their analysis. In the academy this became manifest in postcolonial studies for example and the permeation of post structuralism throughout the social sciences and humanities. English professors were ‘foregrounding’ hermeneutics and ‘cultural modernism’ and sociology was ever-more interested in ‘social identities’, particularly those who were living outside the boundaries of modern rationality.

Likewise, in politics, the Labour Party turned towards the work of the sociologist Anthony Giddens. He told them that in this third stage of development of Western societies (he called reflexive modernity) - which is a decisive break from urban, class-based solidarity – we are now characterised as an ‘individualised risk society’. Scarcity is no longer the issue, society is now in a constant anxious state of ‘risk assessment’ brought about by ecological degradation and health risks that permeate across old class boundaries. ‘Smog is democratic’ as Giddens would say.

So, the issue is not redistribution of wealth but for governments to solve the problems of industrial modernity. To become electable, the Labour Party was to seen to be better at ‘managing’ these risks than the other parties. The lexicon of class analysis disappeared from Labour Party from the 1970s onwards and even Corbyn was careful not to use its terminology.

Meanwhile, in the real world, as the Marmot Report tells us, class is alive (but not very well). The working class are becoming poorer and continue to live short brutish lives. As Danny Dorling has shown us, prior to this pandemic, there were over 150,000 extra deaths each year due to the reduced life chances of the working class, brought about by austerity politics. For the first time in over 100 years, life expectancy in the UK (and the US) had begun to fall.

At the very time this pandemic is rampaging, when the left should be exposing the chronic class based health iniquities and encouraging ‘public health’ solutions that involve serious redistribution of wealth (eg. well-built social housing, improved wages & working conditions, locally controlled education provision, better access to health services, better local government services etc). Instead, the debate is about whether we should be wearing party hats instead of masks! Jeez!

Anonymous said...

Please be careful Phil, this is picking up a lot of heat from some very nasty and malicious people. I would urge you to remove the article and avoid provoking these people - its not worth the pain they will cause you. Remember what happened to Mark Fisher.

Graham said...

Although not directly related to lockdown measures is how some of the left’s rhetoric feeds the refusal to take the vaccine.

Justifiable concerns over the profits been made by Pfizer and the history of past vaccine testing on minority groups form part of the anti-vax movements “Big Pharma” propaganda.

Justifiable scepticism over technological fixes to social problems can merge into anti-scientism, especially when the Tories promote vaccination as prime solution to the current Covid wave.

However not everything our enemies say is wrong and compared to mask wearing, ventilation and restrictions short of a full lockdown, vaccination will remain the principle way of ending the pandemic.

Unknown said...

Indeed 'Dialectician1', well said. The long 40 year retreat, (under the pressures of the long assault of neoliberalism and its related restructuring of the economy and workforce in the capitalist heartlands), from any coherent socialist, (and even more so, Marxist) , class-based, core of analysis by what passes for the 'Left' in the UK, and the USA of course too, to be replaced by a self-obsessed , moralistic, intellectually impoverished Left Liberalism, and obsession with 'conspiracies - and a purile division of what are actually social classes with class interests into the infantilism of 'bad' and 'good' people -rather than an understanding of capitalism , has led us here.

Today what passes for the majority of the UK 'left', even the supposed 'marxist' Far Left, have long deserted traditional socialist, class -based analysis - and of course , any significant contact with the majority of the UK working class. Instead most of the 'Left' have adopted the disconnected woolly virtue-signalling of identity politics and a limited range of morbid obsessions - which lead to a dangerous crossover , via the huge amount of 'conspiraloon' nonsense available via social media, between toxic ideas and analysis coming directly from longstanding fascist and Far Right ideology and obsessions. memes and tropes.

This can be seen very clearly, for instance, in the obsessive ranting on that supposed 'Left' , Corbynite, discussion and Left news forum, 'Skwawkbox'. Though quite obviously thinking of themselves as 'of the socialist Left' most of the small group of obsessive posters on Skwawkbox are dangerously obsessed with 'zionist conspiracies' and Israel in particular, to the exclusion of any other zone of oppression across the globe, Similarly their petty bourgeois obsession with 'conspiracy by 'them', the 'elite' , rather than having an understanding of the basic, normal, oppressive, rapacious, functioning of the class-based capitalist system, leaves them wide open to the siren voices from the radical Far Right - specifically today, the anti vaxx, Qnon, conspiraloons. Hence Skwawkbox has been a major promoter of this diversionary obsession with Israel and 'zionist conspiracy', and also , via its daily rabid anti Vaxx, covid denier, btl poster majority, of the utter nonsense which saturates both significant elements of the 'Left' and populist/fascist Right on this global life and death issue.

It is hard to see how such a , profoundly middle class, Left Liberal politics-saturated, UK (and US) 'Left' can now ever build anything of use either inside the now totally recaptured by the corrupt, careerist, Right, Labour Party, or indeed outside of it , because the collapse of the industrial/manufacturing 'big battalions' of organised labour over the last forty years of Thatcher/Blairism has left the UK mainly as a financialised/service industry 'back office, functional sub unit of globalised capitalism - staffed by an ever more individually isolated and non solidaristic workforce - with a profoundly individualistic, self-obsessed ideological 'mindscape' and , even on what passes for 'the Left' a very thin moralistic overlay scattergun set of disconnected 'radical' beliefs and priorities as their 'political bread and butter'.

Dr Zoltan Jorovic said...

As I write this there have been a new record 183,037 cases reported. By not taking any measures, this number will impact on services as more and more staff self-isolate - we can already see this happening. While omicron might not be deadly, by reducing staff levels on already stretched health services it will cause deaths. It will also affect hospitality and other service businesses. Pretending that the choice is "freedom" without consequences or restrictions with ramifications, rather than a measure of control versus none, or controlled disturbance against uncontrolled and unpredictable damage, is irresponsible and infantile. But libertarianism as a credo is puerile. It's essentially "Me, Me, Me" and "how dare anyone tell me what to do", a stage which most of us pass through between the ages of 4 and 15, but some seem to never escape from.

Seeing footage of the glee and self-righteous conviction of those anti-vaxxers led by Piers Corbyn as they ransacked a vaccination centre was to see narcissistic self-indulgence at it's most grotesque. No doubt those who shout about lockdowns will argue they have little in common with anti-vaxxers, but in reality they are just the moderate face of an ugly new individualist egocentric tendency. Left and libertarian shouldn't even be possible. If you don't believe in collective endeavour, togetherness, solidarity and shared objectives you can't possibly claim to be on the left.

Anonymous said...

First comment is on the right track re the lefts authoritarianism. They are also quick to tarnish any dissenting voices as right wing and/or conspiracy theorists, without really engaging in the content of whats being said, or using actual conspiracy theorists like Piers Corbyn as stand ins for anyone critical of vaccines, lockdowns or the actual virus.
The above commentator accuses anti-vaxxers as narcissists, which may be true, but how would they refer to workers refusing vaccines that get sacked - are they also narcs ?

I highly recommend anyone commenting or lurking this blog to head over to Alexander McKays 'Red Star Radio' for a Marxist take on this situation, and I would like to hear an actual discussion/debate between these two left factions - those who are pro-lockdowns and vaccines and those who arent.

Anonymous said...

For anyone interested - https://www.thebellows.org/from-the-brexit-revolution-to-the-covid-restoration/?amp=1

Authors are a Mancunian and Canadian, not Londoners. Without referring to them as right-wing or conspiracy theorists, or worst still, anti-working class, will the author engage with them and/or their points ?

Anonymous said...

"I highly recommend anyone commenting or lurking this blog to head over to Alexander McKays 'Red Star Radio' for a Marxist take on this situation, and I would like to hear an actual discussion/debate between these two left factions - those who are pro-lockdowns and vaccines and those who arent."

It would be nice to hear an actual discussion/debate but if my exprience of Red Star Radio is any guide, that is not the place. After criticising their position on lockdown on their patreon page, my post was deleted. When I commented further, likening them deleting posts they don't like to Stalinism ... that post was deleted and I was blocked from their patreon, along with a snotty message from them.

I mean, I knew they were *a bit* Stalinist due to the odd comment they made during podcasts (not a deal breaker even for an old Trot like me), but its like they were doing a caricature of Stalinist behaviour.

Maybe it was just an ironic piece of performance art, I guess I'll never know...


Blissex said...

«an actual discussion/debate between these two left factions - those who are pro-lockdowns and vaccines and those who arent.»

That debate is part of the usual distraction tactics from the far more important debate about test-trace-isolate and halfbaked lockdowns, which involve 10-100 times higher death rates.

Anonymous said...

@Anon13:17 - that's unfortunate to hear your comments were deleted, and certainly doesn't do anything to encourage open discussion.
Having said that, that's all the more reason why a panel discussion on the topic would be interesting as forces people to have to engage, where as online its too easy to delete and ignore.
Theres a growing contingent of 'post/non/anti/critical-left' Marxists, which seems to largely or only exist online at the moment, although there are some academics that appear to be leaning that way like Elena Lange and Catherine Liu, although the latter appears on Jacobin, which is an outlet many of the online post/anti-left crowd dislike - theres a recent Platypus Affiliated Society talk relating to this on utube.