openDemocracyUK: Opinion

There’s nothing so political as a pandemic

“Don’t politicise a crisis,” they say. But what’s more political than a global health emergency?

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
17 March 2020, 7.14pm
UK prime minister Boris Johnson
Houses of Parliament

The technocrats are on the rampage.

When Jeremy Corbyn produced a list of fairly moderate demands of the UK government in light of the coronavirus outbreak, ITV’s Paul Brand argued that if such proposals were ‘too political’, they would look opportunistic. The Tory MP Jonathan Gullis branded Corbyn “the biggest disgrace to British politics I have known in my lifetime. To try to play party politics with a health crisis”, he raved, “is disgusting.”

When Owen Jones proposed that the left should develop a list of demands people could then organise for, his timeline was drowned in a tsunami of blue-tick tickings-off. After the Democratic primary debate on Sunday, one commentator complained that Bernie Sanders was attempting to make COVID-19 “a healthcare issue”. Addressing complaints about his response to the crisis, Donald Trump told the governor of New York state to “keep politics out of it”. Every social media complaint about how governments are managing the crisis is flooded with the same foaming tide of replies: “Don’t politicise a crisis.”

This is nothing new. From terrorist attacks to far-off famines, every time one of the horsemen of the apocalypse gallops forth, the outriders of the status quo trot behind them, proclaiming that we shouldn’t ‘politicise’ the crisis.

Help us uncover the truth about Covid-19

The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.

Facts, of course, are facts. But in the coming weeks and months, the questions we will face will be about much more than science. Our future will be determined by questions about sick pay, rent freezes and government communication; support for the most vulnerable and who’s considered valuable. It will matter which voices are heard and whose needs are understood, who we remember, and who we forget.

No avoiding politics

The government has chosen to communicate with the public through private briefings with preferred journalists and paywalled articles in friendly papers. It decided to allow major events to go ahead before providing the vulnerable with clear information or means to cocoon themselves. It then opted to call on citizens to stay away from pubs, clubs and arts venues, before making clear what support it would offer these venues. These were political choices.

Today, the Chancellor has announced a mortgage freeze but not a rent freeze, finance for businesses but not for workers, billions of pounds, but nothing for those without jobs. These are political choices.

The US Federal Reserve has chosen to pump $1.5tn into Wall Street to reinflate the stock market, while millions of Americans go without insurance or continue to go to work despite sickness, because they can’t afford a day off. That’s a political choice.

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I am lucky, but millions are not. Our government must guarantee a liveable income for everyone – now. It will save lives.

The governments of Ireland, Finland and France have chosen to pay out millions to their citizens and to cancel mortgage and rent payments. Those, too, are political choices.

The poor are much more likely to die from COVID-19 than the rich, because they have other illnesses thanks to their poverty. The staggering increase in homelessness rates in the UK means thousands have nowhere safe to go. The failure to tackle domestic violence across the world means that millions of women will be living in fear as they self-isolate. All of these problems are products of the failures of our politics.

Wealth and power will define who is bankrupted and who isn’t, who becomes sick and who doesn’t, who gets the care they need and who suffers, how many of us will live and how many will die. But we will be told that we’re not allowed to talk about these things, because they’re political.

For a decade, progressives across the Western world have been pointing out that our healthcare systems are being torched on the altar of the market. But now we’re all paying the price of that sacrifice, we won’t be allowed to mention it. Because that’s political.

For a generation, the left has developed policy ideas to ensure the protection of everyone in an increasingly precarious economy. But we will be told off for calling for them. Because that’s political.

How we live together

““But it’s not politics we object to,” some say, “it’s party politics.” But parties are a key part of the system of elections and voting – the formal system we have for holding our governments to account. When Tory MP Jonathan Gullis complains that Corbyn is “playing party politics”, he may as well say: “We don’t mind you complaining, but how dare you actually challenge our power!”

More broadly, politics is how we negotiate how we live together. And so there is absolutely nothing on earth that is more political than a pandemic, when disagreements over resources and priorities and behaviour define who will live and who will die, not through the slow playing-out of the long symphony of history, but in the coming weeks and months.

Health is always a social affair, and never more so than with infectious diseases. As a species we live in groups. Everybody’s health relies on everybody else’s. The survival of each depends to some extent on support for all. There is no such thing as an isolated individual decision in a pandemic.

There is no doubt that our world will not go back to what it was before, As Naomi Klein pointed out more than a decade ago, big money has long used disasters to advance its agenda of cuts, privatisation and deregulation, securing unpopular policies when people are too overwhelmed to resist.

“It’s impossible to politicise a crisis, because there is nothing more political than how a human society navigates its way through a disaster.”

In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, luxury hotels privatised beaches on the Indian Ocean which had been used by local fishing communities for generations. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, schools and housing were privatised. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, austerity was unleashed. On the back of 9/11, the ‘war on terror’ was launched.

Likewise, more positive changes have often come from disaster. The Spanish flu of 1918-19 was interwoven with the year of revolutions which overthrew the German empire, ended World War One and shook the Western world. (Some) women’s suffrage soon followed. The welfare state was forged in the fires of World War Two.

It’s impossible to politicise a crisis, because there is nothing more political than how a human society navigates its way through a disaster.

Politics as performance

All the establishment snark is possible because of how we’ve come to understand what politics is. It should be the way we mediate the web of relationships and power structures that make up our society. It should be a social process, part of all of our lives, like family relationships or friendships, only on a bigger, more formalised scale.

If you talk to people about politics, though – in the UK, or in Hungary, Slovakia, Ukraine and Czechia, where I spent last month interviewing people – you find that, for the vast majority, it has very little to do with them.

“It’s a big theatre,” one woman said to me in the mountain town of Poprad, eastern Slovakia; “a big circus”, said another. I spoke to hundreds of strangers in the street about politics in their respective countries, and the language of performance – bad performance – was common.

And if it’s performance, then people see themselves not as participants, but as the audience.

“You should speak to people in Bratislava [the capital],” said one man in eastern Slovakia. “That’s where politics happens.” In the eastern Hungarian city of Nyínghaza, two separate men asked: “What are you doing here?” “You should go to Budapest, ask people there,” one of them explained.

It’s not a social process they are involved in, but a thing they watch or – like a reality TV show that’s gone on a couple too many seasons – something they switch off.

The word used by theorists to describe the transformation of a social process into a thing is ‘reification’ – (‘thing-ification’). The Hungarian philosopher György Lucás argued that this habit of turning social processes into things external to us is an inevitable consequence of living in a capitalist society: you need to put a boundary around something and tell people it’s external to them before you can turn it into a product, and sell it back to them.

There has been a lot of political debate about the fact that neoliberal institutions and governments have privatised large chunks of the state in countries right across the world. We tend to talk less about how, at the same time, modern politics has been constructed in a reified way: a line has been drawn around political process, cameras have been pointed at it, and we’ve been taught that it’s something for us to watch from afar, a hobby to buy into, or not. “I’m not into it,” said Stephen, who I met at a bus stop in Hartlepool the week before the UK election. “I’m into computer games.”

Partly, this reification has been done by the media, who gain power by selling their exclusive access to this distanced world, treating it like a form of celebrity gossip, showing us a world in which we have no place. Partly, it’s done by lobbying firms, big businesses and the influence industry, who have become experts in ensuring they have better access to our representatives than we do. And partly, it’s done by the bureaucrats of party hierarchies, whose value in the labour market comes from being able to navigate the labyrinth.

This reification of politics is itself a key element of a broader phenomenon which is shaping our world: alienation.

The Scottish trade unionist Jimmy Reid defined alienation as “the cry of [wo]men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It’s the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision-making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies.”

Where Marx explained alienation in the context of (capitalist) workplaces, Reid argued: “The concentration of power in the economic field is matched by the centralisation of decision-making in the political institutions of society.”

Given that people feel deeply alienated from our political institutions, it’s not surprising that the many will rally behind the idea that we shouldn’t politicise crises. Politics, as people experience it, is utterly awful.

When we’re told ‘don’t politicise the crisis’, we’re told that democracy doesn’t have a role in making what might be some of the most important decisions in our lives. The fact that so many people seem to intuitively agree – that this sort of statement has almost become common sense – tells us quite how broken our democratic systems are, quite how much we need to build democracy anew.

Alienation and the right

These processes of reification and alienation tend to be good for the right for three reasons. First, a large portion of the media – in the UK as much as in central Europe – is owned by oligarchs who align with regimes which represent their interests. If politics is something we watch, and they own the stage, then their preferred actors will get the best lights and the best lines.

Secondly, progressive ideologies are almost inherently arguments for politics: almost any kind of left-wing programme seeks to solve our collective problems through democratic forums – usually, the state. But if people don’t trust politicians to do what they say they will, and don’t trust politics to make their lives better, then the promises of progressives become just more drivel in a waterfall of nonsense.

“I see all these facts flying around on Facebook,” said Jade, a woman I met as she left her shift in the Atos building in Crewe the week before the UK election. “I don’t know what to believe any more.”

Right-wing politics, on the other hand, tends to be an argument that our problems should be solved through some other social structure: the market, traditional patriarchal and racial hierarchies, faith groups, some kind of authoritarian figure, or some combination of all of these.

“I don’t believe in politics,” said a youngish woman in a Communist-era housing estate on the edge of Prague. “I believe in the family”. She voted for Czechia’s conservatives.

Once democracy has been labelled as ‘politics’, and defined as the quarrels between distant MPs in national parliaments and TV studios, it’s easy to argue against it. When Boris Johnson argued to “get Brexit done”, he was making the case against parliamentary politics. As I’ve written before, he made politics awful, then asked people to vote it away. When Donald Trump proposed to “drain the swamp” and “make America great again”, he was making a similar case, against politics, and for the illusory concept of the nation and its traditional social hierarchies. And when people like Hungary’s Victor Orbán shout about strengthening ‘the family’, they are playing into similar feelings.

And thirdly, once politics stops being about the material issues shaping our lives and our communities, and starts being about more abstract questions of performance and credibility, we are taught to feel that certain sorts of politicians and parties ought to be in charge – the groups our different nationalist lenses teach us are competent, trustworthy and sensible. In the UK, that’s the posh. In the US, it’s the rich. Across the Western world, it’s stupid white men.

You can vote on anything you want... but not on that

One of the things performance authoritarians like Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro and Orbán have in common is that they deal almost entirely in illusions. The issues they focus on tend not to affect the voters they aim to reach. In Hungary’s last election, Orbán raged against immigrants, but almost no one moves to Hungary. The areas of the UK and US which vote for the immigrant-bashing Johnson and Trump have relatively small immigrant populations.

While questions like abortion control, Brexit, or LGBTQI rights are very real for the people affected by them, they aren’t usually direct material concerns to the voters these parties seek to win, or even matters they personally witness. Their understanding of these matters, usually, comes from something other than personal experience.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with voting based on issues outwith your personal purview. In fact, I’d hope we all consider more than our own material interests. But the problem is that when politics becomes a conversation about issues we have few direct encounters with, the mediums through which we learn about these matters become all the more powerful.

And so they encourage their supporters to believe that the set of issues included in their reified version of politics is a collection of rules and laws which are unlikely to impact on the people in that audience. The things you can ‘politicise’ are the things you have no experience of, things which they can teach you about, on the show they control.

Outside the ice hockey arena in Slovakia’s second city, Kočise, a young man called Michael told me he supported the country’s neo-Nazis because he opposed ‘gender ideology’. In Croatia in 2018, activists on more than one street corner asked my partner and I to sign their petition opposing trans rights.

These are not people who have ever in any way been damaged by trans rights. Most likely, they have never knowingly met a trans person. Their passion is not connected to material reality. It is a function of fiction.

Things which we have experience of in our daily lives, on the other hand, are, so often, ‘not political’, or ‘shouldn’t be politicised’.

The economy, for example, has itself been reified and placed in the public imagination in a magic box which no one can influence. Austerity was justified because the gods of the market had, we were told, to be sated.

In reality, ‘the markets’ are not a thing. They are a social process, whose parameters and boundaries are drawn by the laws of states, from protection of property rights to the details of contract law. But we’re not meant to talk about that. Because democracy isn’t allowed to interfere with this reified market. Rather than seeing them as interacting social processes, we are taught to think of both as forces, external to us and only tangentially related to each other.

Partly, this is a matter of propaganda, of how we are encouraged to talk about the economy. And partly, it is a product of privatised and deregulated states. Where once, governments set rent controls, owned major industries and had significant power in the economy, over the past forty years, that grip has weakened, and so the power of democracy over the market has dwindled.

Similarly, and particularly at the height of pre-crash neoliberalism, issues which were obvious moral concerns – climate change or global poverty – were largely transformed from collective problems requiring political action to issues of individual ethics.

Vast campaigns were run encouraging those of us who cared about these crises to focus on changing our light bulbs, buying Fairtrade products or donating, rather than organising for system change. Vast campaigns were run, in other words, to ensure that these deep questions for our society were put in a box marked ‘charity’, which is also, we were taught, separate from the dirty business of politics.

I used to work in climate change campaigning, and would endlessly meet people insisting that we shouldn’t ‘politicise’ the issue, as though the future of civilisation should be determined by some means other than democracy.

The result of these processes was that the reified version of politics under neoliberalism increasingly became a show about the things that neoliberals accepted were the purview of the state – border controls and security; migrants and terrorists.

For the merchants of neoliberal ideology, health has always been an intrusion into this story. As my colleague Caroline Molloy has long documented, there have been numerous attempts to individualise responsibility for healthcare in the UK, from fat-shaming to smoker-blaming. (We've seen some of these attempts to push blame down to individuals in the current crisis, from the much exaggerated idea that there has been panic buying to the attempts to blame individuals for going to crowded parks, in a context of confusing government advice). Often, democratic decisions about the NHS are bureaucratised, with politicians attempting to hide behind unaccountable managers when they make profound decisions of resource allocation – again, we’re told we shouldn’t ‘politicise’.

But on the whole, people have been pretty good at insisting that health is a collective matter. People have a pretty strong instinct that these are matters for democratic debate – issues in which we all deserve a say.

“The idea that we are all just autonomous individuals with no responsibility to each other is placed under a microscope by human frailty.”

This is why health has become the core focus of Bernie Sanders’ anti-systemic campaign, and why the NHS has just about survived in recent decades: the questions of life and death inherent to many of the prioritisations of capitalism are magnified tenfold when they are seen through the lens of healthcare. The idea that we are all just autonomous individuals with no responsibility to each other is placed under a microscope by human frailty.

When it comes to the bottom line of sickness and health, it turns out that most humans reject the ideological assumptions of the free market. When it comes to a pandemic, politics is no longer a show. Covid-19 is reaching through our screens and infecting the material world.

Where Johnson and Trump and Bolsonaro win by denying the importance of democratic decision-making, a global pandemic reminds us that politics is more than a performance. It’s a matter of life and death.

Those who police the borders of politics will always insist that democracy has no role in determining the answers to the most important questions for our society. They will always moan if the people are given any kind of access to real power. But beyond their showbusiness, away from the spotlights, here in reality, there is nothing as political as a pandemic. And progressives are going to have to mobilise, because we can be sure that the powerful will.

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