Fox, Minneapolis. Photo: Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS. Fox, Minneapolis. Photo: Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS.

Through the Covid-19 crisis we glimpse the need for change and the possibility of change, argues Mike Wayne

One of the obstacles to radical change is an imagination deficit. The inability to imagine anything other than incremental reform and technocratic tweaking within a course that seems set in the concrete of daily life and institutional norms is one barrier to going beyond what is to what ought to be. Alternatively, there is the fear (and sometimes in popular culture, the desire) of a sudden catastrophic breakdown as the long accumulating contradictions bubbling away within our reality look to suddenly converge, erupt and shatter everything that we have known (the apocalyptic Hollywood scenario).

The crisis opened up by Covid-19 is a chance to think in the space between business as usual and such disaster scenarios. To be sure, C-19 is framed by such anxieties at both ends. The UK establishment, after heaving a long collective sigh of relief that the threat of a Corbyn government had been avoided, is now pushed into operating in emergency mode and implementing policies previously written off as cosmically stupid. The unthinkable is now so routine that the recent announcement by Health Secretary Matt Hancock, that 13.4 billion of NHS debt was being written off, barely raised a collective eyebrow in the media commentariat.

At the same time and strangely penetrating these large-scale ruptures with neo-liberal orthodoxy, you can sense the deep unease, the concern in the apparently open but rather haunted question that is constantly being asked by the establishment: ‘what kind of country will we be on the other side of this….’. The conservative and liberal political culture which together and against each other defeated the Corbyn project, wants very much for the answer to be, not much different from what we were before C-19 struck.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are the fears of looming disaster and economic collapse awaiting us should this crisis go on for a long time as well as the very understandable concern that the Tories answer to their 2020 bail-out of the economy will be a hundred years of austerity, never mind the ten we have had since 2010. But even here, within this panorama of anxiety strange new images and visions of something better bubble to the surface of the collective unconscious. The massive decline in air pollution now that car travel has declined, industrial and commercial activity has slumped, and the airline industry globally has been shuttered, has been captured in those satellite images displaying Before C-19 and After C-19.

Who knows what ideas people may get when they see the inky black waters of Venice’s canals turn blue and re-populated with fish and fowl? The surreal flourishing of wildlife in the abandoned streets of towns are like images from a disaster movie but with a benevolent tinge, since we are still here to witness it. The sheep and deer seem to carry a message to us concerning the need to refashion our relationships with the natural world, one that would require us to stop commodifying it, along with ourselves.

Contradictions abound in crises, tendencies pull one way and another simultaneously and thought as well as practice stretches to encompass the dynamics of the situation. The state for example seems at once both reborn as an initiator of action on the scale and scope required to deal with our accumulated problems after 40 years of neo-liberal disaster capitalism and at the same time, the British state in particular, seems badly exposed as lacking the co-ordination capacity required to deal effectively with the crisis. On the one hand the bizarre spectacle of Rishi Sunak, formerly of Goldman Sachs, latterly the newly appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, effectively nationalising 80% of the wage packet of millions of workers. On the other hand, the headless chicken tribute act that constitutes the rest of the government’s response to the pandemic. 

Yes, this is hardly the crème de la crème of the ruling class with their hands on the levers of power.  It would be too cruel to name names, but from the Prime One down, this phoney ‘populist’, mendacious, deeply self-serving, wholly careerist bunch of chancers do not even have the best interests of the bourgeoisie close to their hearts – just their own best self-interests. The ruling class ought to be – and probably already are – deeply worried about the calibre of people now in control of state power.

What’s more, the government clearly surround themselves with yes men and women in the field of science as well – stuffing their advisory boards with neo-liberal social scientists who put the economy first and elaborated the now disavowed lunacy of the ‘herd immunity’ strategy. But beyond the question of individual competency, the crisis has revealed a broader state and cultural incompetency, the legacy of decades of hollowing out by privatisation and pseudo-markets in public organisations. The inability to co-ordinate between Public Health England and all the laboratories in the private sector and in the universities, to scale up testing is one example of the weakness of state co-ordination capacity. The inability to provide Personal Protective Equipment to frontline staff is another.

There is probably some investigative journalism to be done into whether the NHS supply chain that is so badly letting down frontline staff has anything to do with the fragmented contracting out system to a range of large corporate providers (disguised by the state-owned Supply Chain Coordination Company that overseas the contracts). The threadbare links between government and a depleted manufacturing sector is exposed in the dangerous time wasted in mobilising the domestic production of ventilators. The possible longer-term threat to British food supply chains is likewise deeply connected to the deferment from the state to Tesco et al on food policy.

So everywhere we see the potential for state involvement leveraging investment to radically transform lives and protect livelihoods and at the same time we see the deterioration of the British state – especially stark by the international comparisons to German and South Korean responses to the crisis – laid out before us after decades of neo-liberal governance. Both the potential of the state and the exposure of state incapacity will worry the Tories.

And finally there is the very sudden transformation in value and esteem being accorded to the newly designated keyworkers. The other night, prior to the Channel Four news, the announcer offered the broadcaster’s thanks to keyworkers which included such formerly despised occupations as cleaners and porters. Along with the doctors and nurses, already well regarded, suddenly those working in the supermarkets, the transport systems, the communication networks such as the post office and social care, have had a public make-over in the mainstream channels of the media.

Perhaps beneath the thanks and gratitude that these media organs now bestow, there may also stir a renewed self assertion on the part of the keyworkers, that while thanks is welcome, it would be nice to exert a bit of collective organised power as well and demand what is owed and a big share in what has been snaffled away by the ruling class.