Fighting them on the beaches
Mass refusal of social distancing is the cost of social fragmentation
In every crisis there is the official story and there is reality. While the TV news remains mesmerised by the daily political theatre of Johnson’s press conferences, the reality at micro-level is getting grimmer.
First, we’ve seen a mass refusal to obey the government’s “suggestion” that people don’t go out. And we’ve seen shoppers continue to panic-buy food, sometimes crushing through the doors of supermarkets in ways guaranteed to keep the virus exponential.
In response, politicians are railing at their own voters, calling them selfish, with “young men” (a fairly important group if given the amount of war rhetoric being thrown around) being especially stigmatised.
But the weekend’s mass influxes to beaches, street markets and public parks were a direct result of the UK government failing either to issue clear public health messaging, or to begin the kind of lockdowns that have become mandatory Italy, France and New Zealand.
Basically they expected a networked population, taught by 30+ years of neoliberalism to follow their individual self-interest, to start acting like the community-singing cockneys in Passport to Pimlico. The fact that they didn’t was wholly predictable, because all many the old sources sources of peer pressure — solidarity, community and respect for expertise — have been blown away.
Second, we’ve seen the start of victimisations of health workers. Emergency care medics being evicted at 24 hours notice; nurses being insulted in the streets and told they are a health risk; meanwhile hospital managers are being forced to push medics and nurses into critical care without the vital personal protective equipment.
Third, we’ve seen an immediate surge in financial scams aimed at the elderly and the sick: fake cures sold online, testing kits that don’t exist, price gauging by a few small shopkeepers. And in response, a justifiable anger.
This snapshot should reveal, to anybody who has experienced a situation of social crisis or breakdown, the familiar emergence of numerous “them and us” narratives, which the UK political class need to a) recognise and b) learn how to mitigate.
Right now politicians on all sides are focused on two out-of-control crisies: the epidemic itself and the economic consequences. So in the next 24 hours we’re likely to see Boris Johnson stop dithering and order an immediate lockdown, putting police and armed forces on the streets to enforce it.
Horrible though it will look, it is necessary. Because unlike in the Second World War, when Britain was never invaded, the enemy is already here: the virus has no hangups, no psychoses, no class contradictions, no bumbling politicians to hamper its own progress.
But there’s a third front, beyond epidemiology and economics: it’s civil society. And after 40 years of atomisation as part of the neoliberal project, UK society is not in great shape. This is the thing politicians recoil from saying, because it amounts to criticising the people who vote for you, but it needs saying.
I’ve heard people from the official world start worrying about “the underclass” during the last 48 hours. The subtext of a lot of their private criticism of those going to Skegness, Matlock or London’s public parks is that they’re low-educated hopeless people.
In my experience this is completely wrong. To ex-military and civil service types, what they mean by “the underclass” is actually a large part of the working class — both the old, small-town ex-industrial culture and the “new”, younger city dwelling culture. The people who turned up at Matlock on Harley Davidsons were not members of an underclass.
The great conceit of the British political elite is that, faced with wartime levels of risk, the modern population will somehow behave as their grandparents did in the 1940s.
To understand why they won’t just watch any movie from that era: Passport to Pimlico, The Way Ahead or In Which We Serve. The micro-behaviours and levels of class deference and collective action exhibited quite naturally in those films would be seen as deviant by many people on the beaches today.
In the 1940s — and in fact right through to the 1970s — peer pressure was exerted by working class people on each through figures of authority, through a shared humour, and through face to face conversations. And above all a shared culture.
It’s not that these things have disappeared during the neoliberal era, but they have become fragmented: people in my south-London community exert peer pressure on each other; so do people in my hometown in Lancashire. But not in the same way, or with the same values.
In the crisis that’s about to unfold, someone has to “own” this problem. I am told it is pre-occupuing senior law-enforcement and security people — but it needs to be front of mind for people in politics.
They need to stop saying to each other that “the underclass is undermining our efforts against the coronavirus” and understand that perfectly decent and ordinary people are reacting to a crisis in ways shaped by decades of social atomisation and commercialisation.
What they need is a clear public information campaign and a compulsory lockdown, with mass testing, tracing and the planned delivery of food, medicines etc to those in need.
In the end the people who have to sort this out is us: the 99%. In my local area we’re already seeing spontaneous acts of solidarity and adaptation: one local pub is to reopen as a “community kitchen and food store”; numerous handwritten signs on closed shops explain how they’ll adapt to delivery-only or online operations. Signs pasted to lampposts invite people to join local self-help groups on Facebook. People are learning how to queue in two metre intervals.
The labour movement has already played a sterling role in the fight for an 80% wage subsidy. With 7 million union members and 600,000 Labour Party members we could be doing a lot more at community level.
But the most important thing is to argue, unashamedly, for a society based on mutual aid and co-operation. And to back today’s expected enforced lockdown, while using social media and our windows and balconies to spread a message of solidarity with each other — and resistance to the profiteers, rogue landlords and xenophobes.