angrysampoetry

the foundations of oppression can't be plucked up without the anger of a multitude

Beyond a Lockdown

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We all know that governments’ responses to this pandemic are flawed. Ours in the UK is among the worse. Hopefully, also, we recognise that, just as with global warming, the emergence of ‘novel Coronavirus’ is the result of an ideology that threatens all life on this planet.

deforestation forcing animals into cities and increasing the transfer of diseases

The way we keep our farmed animals is also alarming. Lucile Leclair reports in Le Monde Diplomatique that in recent years, we have had a series of ‘crises in pig breeding’, including the 2018-19 African swine fever outbreak in China which led to the slaughter of half the country’s pigs; bovine TB on cattle farms; bluetongue virus on sheep farms; and H5N1 flu among poultry.[1] According to the World Organisation for Animal Health, the number of livestock epidemics has almost tripled in the past 15 years. The advice from international bodies is to increase ‘biosecurity’ on farms. Leclair argues that the costs and methods involved in the model is a ‘presumption in favour of intensive agriculture’. She writes that ‘biosecurity’ itself is a ‘more palatable name’ for industrialisation – the ‘solution to a problem they helped create’.

There are parallels with the creation of ‘zoonotic‘ diseases (epidemics that pass from animals to humans). The US National Institutes for Health reckons that ‘75% of new or emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic in origin’. They advocate a biosecurity model here too. As part of the ‘global health security agenda’, we should have greater ‘surveillance’ of the ‘animal-human interface’ and a global ‘one health’ approach to ‘controlling public health emergencies’. Couched in the same language as the counter-terrorism agenda, it is time that we at least question the effectiveness of such an approach.

So factory farming and the destruction of habitats are creating diseases that threaten livestock and humanity. The state response is globally-managed ‘biosecurity’.

In what I believe is an important article published in Historical Materialism, Panagiotis Sotiris points out that as well as ‘capitalist accumulation and reproduction’ creating ‘the ecological conditions for the emergence of new pathogens’, also ‘there is a strong relation between social conditions in capitalist societies and disease, both infectious and chronic.’ So, writes Sotiris, ‘a pandemic is not merely or primarily a biological phenomenon; it is also a social process.’ The biosecurity response fails by ‘treating the emergence and transmission of a pathogen with little regard to its social context.’

The  Office for National Statistics (ONS) has countless examples of how social conditions significantly affect COVID-19 mortality rates, whether that’s where someone lives, what job they do, their class, age, gender or ethnic background. For example, ‘For men in elementary occupations in England, the rate of death involving COVID-19 was three times higher among those who lived in the most deprived neighbourhoods compared with the least deprived’.[2] Men who did similar jobs were three times as likely to die of coronavirus if they lived in poorer areas. How can this be, if, as Michael Gove pompously pronounced, ‘the virus does not discriminate’[3]? It seems that the ‘virus’ is not the single, biological enemy that we are fighting against.

Linden Foods workers on strike for safer working conditions, N. Ireland earlier this year

Right now Britain is placed again under ‘lockdown’. Lockdown, however, is more effective for some than others. During the 1st lockdown, the ONS reports, ‘managers, directors, and senior officials had a statistically significantly lower [mortality] rate’ than they did before lockdown. Lockdown was effective for them because their jobs could be done from home; they were more likely to remain employed and on full pay; and their homes were generally easier to ‘lockdown’ in than those of lesser paid workers.

It was not a lockdown for all. The ONS again:

‘security guards, care workers and home carers, taxi and bus drivers, vehicle technicians and mechanics, had some of the highest rates of death involving COVID-19. Many of the occupations in these groups will have continued working during the pandemic and would be unable to work from home, possibly increasing their chances of catching the virus.’

Of the aforementioned ‘elementary workers’, the ONS clarifies that of the men in this vague group, the worst mortality was among ‘process plant occupations, with 73.3 deaths per 100,000 men … This occupation generally includes those working in factories, such as those who clean industrial machines, and those who pack goods …The second highest rate was seen in the elementary security occupations, with 68.2 deaths per 100,000 men’.

By far the vast majority of deaths, however, were of people already locked down, i.e. the elderly in the care homes. In July, the ONS reported that UK care homes had had almost 20,000 deaths where COVID-19 was mentioned as either the confirmed (85%) or suspected (15%) cause of death. This was approximately half the total coronavirus deaths in the country at the time. On top of this, the ONS reported that in fact by July there were 30,000 ‘extra’ deaths in care homes above the yearly average.[4] It is so bad that some of the private providers have gone into receivership because they do not have enough ‘clients’ left to turn a profit.[5]

Of those unexplained, extra 10,000 deaths in UK care homes, it matters little whether these were unrecorded coronavirus cases (remember, the Coronavirus Act changed the requirements on who could sign the death certificate[6]), or whether these were deaths from despair of elderly people no longer able to receive visitors. Either way, it is impossible to wipe off this 45.9% increase in care home deaths as a freak occurrence unrelated to the virus and the social conditions around it.

This massacre of our elders was not inevitable. Nor were state institutions unaware of the dangers. The plans of a 2017 report into improving safety in care homes in the case of a pandemic were ignored and suppressed (a leaked copy was published by the Guardian[7]); recommendations from Public Health England in April to change working arrangements were rejected[8]. Instead, agency workers were moving from home to home, and, worst of all, in order to free up hospital beds, 25,000 untested people were released from hospital and sent into care homes[9], some of them spreading a virus that is deadly to elderly people with co-morbidities. In fact, following the biosecurity model, this is the moment that looks most like biological terrorism: sending infection into a closed space like an anthrax package at a tube station. It was done by the state.

The UK was not unique. Deaths in care homes account for 50% of the national total in Belgium, 85% in Canada, 49% in France, 56% in Ireland, 34.1% in Spain (where there has also been a general increase in mortality in care homes), and 47% in Sweden. These deaths are not primarily a result of the virus but, as Sotiris suggests, a product of the ‘neoliberal reforms of public care systems and the fact that senior citizens are treated as both important consumers (of health services) and “surplus populations”.’

Doing the Same Thing Again

Despite all the knowledge we now have about the virus, Lockdown 2.0 is more of a repeat than an upgrade. This is not to say that sensible public health measures should not be in place. Everyone’s shared aim is to eliminate the virus from the population, or at least to find a way to live with it. Wearing masks, keeping distance from others, avoiding crowded spaces, keeping alert to symptoms, getting tested, washing our hands – all of these are sensible measures and government has been surprised by how cooperative we have been on these points. Normally, our compliance is harder to win. The difference being this time is that we are being asked to do something rational.

The first lockdown was widely supported. The government line that it was implemented to ‘save our NHS’, was not just patriotic rhetoric. It was true. Morgues had overflowed. The GMB union reported that staff had run out of body bags.[10] Again, this was not an inevitable result of a virus, nor even just a result of the delays in imposing restrictions. Decades of hospital closures has meant the creation of super-hospitals and the loss of primary care. Reductions in staff and beds all made ‘our NHS’ less capable of dealing with the pandemic. The UK has 2.1. acute care beds per 1000 inhabitants, half the number per population of, for example, Hungary and Slovenia, much less than Germany’s 6 or Japan’s 7.8 beds per 1000[11]. With little knowledge of this new virus, with rapidly rising death rates and a lack of facilities in the health system, we had to accept blanket restrictions – or continue going to work, if we slipped through the holes in that blanket. We agreed with the aims but the method was hopeless. Ideological and economic priorities meant that construction sites stayed open, prisons full, migrants criminalised, transport unsafe. Corruption, inefficiency and (quite possibly) stupidity, hampered the development of safety measures, a proper testing system and the procurement of equipment

This convergence of aims, however, has made us susceptible to the lie that ‘we are all in it together’, and to the acceptance of a coercive, authoritarian policy in combating the disease. This is not only dangerous for society in terms of rights, democracy and government accountability. It is psychologically dangerous too. Murray Bookchin, theorising the history of the rise of States out of ‘organic societies’, points out:

‘The State’s capacity to absorb social functions provides it not only with an ideological rationale for its existence; it physically and psychologically rearranges social life so that it seems indispensable as an organising principle for human consociation. In other words, the State has an epistemology of its own, a political one that is imprinted upon the psyche and the mind. A centralised State gives rise to a centralised society; a bureaucratic State to a bureaucratic society; a militaristic State to a militaristic society – and all develop the outlooks and psyches with the appropriate “therapeutic” techniques for adapting the individual to each.’[12]

The UK government is particularly obsessed with the ‘therapeutic’ technique. Johnson has established a cabal of advisors who are devotees of behavioural psychology, ‘nudge’ theory and data. The recently departed Dominic Cummings explained at Nudgestock 2017, that his politics cannot be ‘defined as left or right’, that his modus operandi was to ‘exploit elements’ of social opinion and predicted that ‘the future will be a combination of … experimental psychology and data scientists’. Cummings is just the most well-known of this group of experimental psychology enthusiasts. Thus, we should not be surprised that a Tory government has been prepared even to cross their traditional ideological lines, willingly giving out state money, while spending heavily on communication, advertising and messaging. They will not allow us to know even who is on their Sage committee, let alone what the ‘science’ is that they are hearing. As Bookchin says, the State always has techniques for ‘adapting the individual’ to the desired psyche. With this current lot in power we have perhaps reached the apotheosis of this approach.

The ‘leave it us to manage things for you’ policy has fostered some unhelpful mindsets, which I will generalise and categorise into two unfortunate types. One of which needs more attention than the other.

1. Libertarian hyper-individualism / Virus deniers.

These people have been a nuisance from the start, juveniling the debate to an argument about whether or not the virus exists. Understandably, perhaps, they sense a conspiracy and a cover-up and, from there become convinced that the 1.5million deaths worldwide are an elaborate hoax and/or caused by the proximity of phone masts and the wearing of face-masks. They then get lost down a rabbit-hole of beliefs about vaccinations as a tool of surveillance (instead of corporate and state snooping via phones and the internet); folk Christian superstitions about devil worshippers (instead of an understanding of capitalism, class and hierarchy); and masks as a way to stop us breathing (rather than the police).

As with climate change, engaging with deniers further postpones finding solutions to the problem as we waste time arguing about incontrovertible facts. However, these discourses are not just confusing people, they are also disempowering them. The grand conspiracies credit States with abilities well beyond their actual capabilities. It is probably flattering for governments that people believe they ‘knew before it happened’, as rapper K koke’s latest skunk-fuelled conspiracy rap insists.[13]

K-koke from the ‘KokeSpiracy’ video

2. The Good Citizen Response

More problematic than the former. this mindset bears more scrutiny and is all the more dangerous because it comes from a desire for social good.

The Good Citizen imagines that it is everyone else who is to blame because, unlike her or himself, everyone else has been flaunting the rules that would have otherwise ‘kept us safe’ and ‘saved lives’. The Good Citizen wants to do their bit to protect the elderly and vulnerable. He/she identifies his/herself as a the only one following the rules. S/he is annoyed and frustrated by street parties, sunbathers in parks, supermarket trollies laden with non-essential items.

Naturally enough, if a person has invested in self-sacrifice for the common good and pinned their identity as a ‘Good Citizen’ to their own punctilious observation of the ‘rules’, then that person will judge and resent others who appear not to be as strict in their compliance. Sadly, however, this undermines the whole notion of solidarity that the Good Citizen began with.

This ‘blame thy neighbour’ approach says much about the mindset that we labour under, one that worrying corresponds to psychologist Wilhelm Reich’s description of what he considers to be a typical, reactionary, lower middle-class man:

‘He feels himself to be a defender of the “national heritage”, of the “nation”, which does not prevent him, likewise on the basis of this identification, from simultaneously despising “the masses”. … As time goes on, he ceases to realise how completely he has sunk to a position of insignificant, blind allegiance. … At a time of crisis, it is the reactionary man who begins to rave about “service to the community” and “general welfare comes before personal welfare”’.

Reich was analysing the psychology of those who voted the Nazis to Germany’s second largest party in 1932. Of course, defending the ‘nation’ from a virus is quite different from defending the nation from the infection of ‘lower races’. Nevertheless, the striking parallels of the psychology should be noted. As Reich saw it: ‘Fascism’s lower middle class is the same as liberal democracy’s lower middle class, only in a different historical epoch of capitalism’. Encouraged to ‘energy and diligence’ by the German Nationals propaganda, this class had a particular predilection to following authority, for 3 main reasons:

1. Their social-economic position. Not at the bottom of society, they are nevertheless insecure enough financially to want to mark themselves as socially above the masses. They may actually earn less than ‘than the industrial worker, but with a prospect of a career and a pension.’  The typical lower-middle class fascist voter (or social democrat in different times): ‘while subordinate to the top, … enjoys a privileged moral (not material) position.’ They mark their superiority by social signifiers that tie them more to an identification with authority: ‘By adopting the attitudes, way of thinking and demeanour of the ruling class, they undergo a complete change and, in an effort to minimise their lowly origin, often appear as caricatures of the people whom they serve.’ Reich uses butlers, middle managers and army sergeants, as ‘flagrant’ examples of this identification with the ruling class, ‘the company’ or state power.

2. Emotional Factors. As Reich saw it, ‘in the figure of the father the authoritarian state has its representative in every family, so that the family becomes its most important instrument of power.’ Working in family businesses, whether as peasants or small business owners, they did not have the solidarity of industrial workplaces or the more communal housing arrangements of the poor, and so instead their living and working arrangement ‘entails a strict family tie of all members of the family’. For many people in the West today, the family rather than the ‘class’ has been the primary socio-political unit, and ‘family values’ rather than ‘class solidarity’ have been the primary loyalty, ever since Thatcher declared the abolition of ‘society’. The identification with the father figure of the leader, the obedience to paternalistic rules and the pride that their ways are superior to the masses, may well have its roots in patriarchal family relations.

3. Sexual Repression. Reich’s big thing was sex. For him, ‘sexual inhibitions constitute the most important prerequisites for the structural formation of the lower middle class, … compassed with the help of religious fears.’ Without the libertine sexual pleasures of the upper-class or the relative freedom of encounters in work and social life of the working class, ‘sexual debility is compensated by rigid character traits’.

Today, the Good Citizen will not be on dating apps. ‘Casual sex’, ‘free love’, ‘polyamory’ or even sex with a partner not living in the same house have effectively been outlawed. What happens, psychologically, to those who obey these strictures? As Reich saw it, ‘the compulsion to control one’s sexuality, to maintain sexual repression, leads to the development of pathologic, emotionally tinged notions of honour and duty, bravery and self-control’. Are the ‘rigid character traits’ and a pride in abstinence, self-control and abnegation ‘for the good of the nation’ increasing a sense of superiority over ‘rule-breakers’?

All in all, the production of the Good Citizen type is worrying. Of course, public measures to combat this virus are sensible. However, they do not help the 8 people living in a 5 bedroom house where some work in food-processing factory; some as zero-hours, agency workers in multiple carehomes; some as chefs in a prison and one as a mini-cab driver. If the virus infects those people’s workplaces it will rage on, killing the old and the unwell. As some people have pointed out, it is a lockdown for the rich with the poor delivering things to their shops or their door.

Whether as paranoid conspiracy theorist, or fastidious rule-follower, neither type is relieving their anxieties through any kind of action. In his KokeSpiracy Theory video, K-koke stands outside parliament in a jacket with ‘revolution’ written on it, but he stands alone, rapping about the impossibility of challenging our Satan-worshipping rulers. In contrast, the Good Citizen is still living in the real world where viruses exist. However the actions they take are equally unsatisfactory. The hygiene measures and self-denial make them more anxious, more annoyed about people not wearing masks properly and more likely to demand harsher punishments for those who are transgressing. In both cases, there is a need for control from outside. ‘Save me’, K-koke raps and one wonders to whom this plea is addressed. The good citizen calls the police. As Reich said: ‘It is this need for protection on the part of the masses of the people that enables the dictator to “manage everything”’.

Part 2: A logic of solidarity and a people’s science

Understanding the virus means analysing who is most vulnerable. At the time of writing, in the UK, fewer than 300 people under 40 have died of coronavirus.[14] That does mean that the young are invincible or incapable of passing on the disease to others who might be more at risk. If they do catch it, then, coronavirus is unpleasant and we do not know the long-term effects of a non-fatal infection. However, looking at the facts can allow us to imagine practical solutions.

Sotiris calls for a ‘logic of solidarity’ not the ‘logic of coercion’; for measures that are ‘adjusted to life of communities’; the radical re-organisation of workplaces; and public education. Facing an outbreak of ebola virus, a combination of development agendas and self-directed changes in people’s behaviour, created a ‘merged understanding’ between communities and ‘experts’, which, argues Paul Richards, was crucial to controlling the epidemic.[15] Communities learnt a ‘people’s science’ and adjusted accordingly, for instance to change burial rituals and adapt customs for caring for sick relatives at home. Similarly, the gay communities’ response to HIV in the 1980s was the biggest driver in change in social customs around safe sex and sexual health testing, combating taboos and pushed ‘experts’ and even homophobic governments into funding the research that has led to a situation where ‘as long as you get tested and get the right treatment you carry on living’[16]

Scientific ignorance is by no means a solely African problem. Here, even if you are in the ‘elite’ third, who took triple science GCSE, you are a long way from even a basic grasp of virology. Where are the BBC programmes teaching us the science that could help us wipe out conspiracy theories, and find solutions to wipe out the virus?

A burial in West Africa, 2015

What could have been done?

There are many things that the state could have done differently if not constrained by the rigidity of their capitalist ideology. First of, and above all, there needed to be a much better testing system, locally managed rather than centralised, and giving us all a chance to find out who had it and then to isolate and support the infected.

But there is much more. For example, the government could reduce the pension age and allow older workers to have the choice to retire now. This would be money better spent than paying companies to furlough their employees. They could nationalise care homes and have an in-house workforce with which to create much safer conditions for the residents.

The 1st lockdown bought us time. We had a summer with relatively low cases. That time could have been used to train new, younger workers to take the old jobs and to design new working conditions. Workplaces need complete re-organisation, but there is zero political willingness to do so. The fruit-and veg picking industry was a case in point. As 1 million new claimants signed onto universal credit in a fortnight in March[17], patriotic calls were made for the unemployed to pick fruit for Britain. Many people attempted to do so only to discover that labour conditions were so bad[18] (long hours, low, piece-rate pay, 3 to caravan living on-site, effectively not allowed to leave, punishments and fines for slow work-rates etc.[19]), that they could not do the job. Instead, while all other flights were grounded, the British government allowed farmers to charter flights between Bucharest and London to keep up the annual 60,000-strong migration of exploitable, seasonal agricultural workers.[20] Discovering the indentured labour-like conditions of the work picking food on industrial farms, ‘only 16% [of the 35,000 UK applicants] opted to interview for a role.’[21]

However, instead of a proper re-think, we carried on much the same. With Johnson claiming himself to be the ‘supercharged champion of the right of populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other’, the government washed its hands of responsibility while we washed ours, sang happy birthday and clapped for carers, waiting passively for the technocratic panacea of a vaccine.

Farm work, Kent, July 2017

What can we do?

Where the state has so evidently failed to protect its citizens, now more than ever do we need our own infrastructure. It is not more dangerous to be in a room with another person for a few hours than it is to work in a food-processing factory, Crossrail construction site or Amazon warehouse. This is because there are too many workplaces designed in inhuman ways. We should be taking this time to form our own systems: from food-growing and distribution networks, to mutual aid approaches to transport, and autonomous schools. Fortunately, we are not starting from scratch. There are organic foodgrowers committed to ecological production processes. There are hundreds of DIY music, arts and cultural scenes. There is opensource internet software; a culture around cycling (despite the huge advance, availability and convenience of motor cars); supplementary schools; a culture against waste (despite constant exhortations to buy disposable and cheap goods); political movements that are self-organised and not linked to parliament; refugee support groups; mutual aid networks (one thing we did achieve during this pandemic. Huge credit to the catalysts of this reaction); BLM groups (another thing achieved in this time. Again massive credit to the movers and shakers there), as well as their offshoots and predecessors; ‘base’ unions’; housing co-ops; renters’ groups; feminist activists; anti-fascists; police monitoring groups; prison abolitionists; sex-workers’ unions; climate justice campaigns … the list is endless. In autonomous structures, unlike in state or corporate institutions, we can find ways to produce for and reproduce society where sensible measures are put in place to lower chances of infection and protect and support the vulnerable.

We can change our lifestyle to be more conscious and autonomous from the worst parts of capitalism – the production and consumption cycles that are destroying and degrading the planet and dredging up new diseases. We can join unions and form groups at work that will push for change to make things safer for workers. We can form groups in our neighbourhood or join existing ones. No one can say where it will end. As in all things in life, ‘you engage and then you see’.

Take just one examples. Schools. We worry about whether schools should be open. On the one hand, they are sites of potential infection. On the other hand, school closures place huge burdens on parents and carers, particularly those who cannot work from home, have limited time, space and computer equipment to help their kids with their school work.

It looks like an impossible conundrum. But there are always solutions. We could push for school attendance to be non-compulsory for staff and students alike. The teachers who are working from home could focus on teaching the home-educated. This non-coercive form of virus control would have the added benefit of reducing school cohorts, meaning more space to have distancing measures, and the happy, educational benefit of finally reducing class size to a more human number.

But we need not stop there. We could ‘socialise the strike’ as some activists put it. Adults with enough skills and time on their hands, could set up small, alternative education spaces for home-educated kids, giving the parents who have kids at home a break, and allowing for those kids to meet other young people in small, better managed settings.

In a strange irony, this year the most active agitators and organisers have been most compliant in following government rules. We cannot let sensible precautions make us abandon our greatest human protection: collective struggle.


[1] Leclair; The Biosecurity Myth: industrilaised agriculture at greater risk of disease, Le Monde Diplomatique, November 2020

[2]https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/causesofdeath/bulletins/coronaviruscovid19relateddeathsbyoccupationenglandandwales/deathsregisteredbetween9marchand25may2020

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wPmN9H65Pcc

[4] deathsinvolvingcovid19inthecaresectorenglandandwales

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/14/covid-19-outbreaks-up-to-20-times-more-likely-in-large-care-homes-uk-study

[6] https://assets.publishing.seguidance-for-doctors-completing-medical-certificates-of-cause-of-death-covid-19.pdf

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/07/revealed-the-secret-report-that-gave-ministers-warning-of-care-home-coronavirus-crisis

[8] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/28/government-rejected-radical-lockdown-england-care-homes-coronavirus

[9] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/coronavirus-uk-care-homes-test-cases-deaths-nao-a9562336.html

[10] https://www.gmb.org.uk/news/traumatised-nhs-staff-use-sheets-after-body-bags-run-out

[11] https://www.oecd.org/coronavirus/en/

[12] Murray Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy; 1982; AK Press 2005; p200. His emphasis.

[13] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eb6ddzoyBKY

[14] https://www.england.nhs.uk/statistics/statistical-work-areas/covid-19-daily-deaths/

[15] https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lsereviewofbooks/2016/10/19/book-review-ebola-how-a-peoples-science-helped-end-an-epidemic-by-paul-richards/

[16] https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/love-sex/aids-crisis-1980-eighties-remember-gay-man-hiv-positive-funerals-partners-disease-michael-penn-a7511671.html

[17] https://www.resolutionfoundation.org/publications/no-work-no-pay/

[18] https://www.theguardian.com/money/2020/apr/20/just-not-true-were-too-lazy-for-farm-work-say-frustrated-uk-applicants

[19] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2020/05/21/frui-m21.html

[20] https://www.cla.org.uk/%E2%80%98uk-will-need-new-land-army-feed-nation-says-cla

[21] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/15/romanian-fruit-pickers-flown-uk-crisis-farming-sector-coronavirus

Written by angrysampoetry

November 28, 2020 at 11:41 am

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