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There is no such thing as Socialism in the singular

COVID-19 is a ‘syndemic’ not a pandemic and shows we need a democracy that brings together the biological, political, social and economic

Read an exclusive extract from Anthony Barnett's new book, 'Taking Control! Humanity and America After Trump and the Pandemic', published 8 March

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
7 March 2022, 11.02am
Just for starters
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Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Alamy Live News. All rights reserved

Around the world, most of us have a family member or friend who has died from COVID-19, or know those who have. We are told it is a “pandemic”, which is a contagious disease that spreads exponentially through a population. At the beginning I accepted this description. But while writing this book the Delta variant took off in England and even some who have been vaccinated caught it. At the same time it was credibly reported that its spread was due to the Prime Minister deciding to keep the UK open to travellers from India, where Delta was known to be spreading, because he wanted to go there to sign a trade deal. As a consequence, in April 2021, over 40,000 went back and forth and between 500 and 1,000 carried the Delta variant to England from India, according to the BBC. Then there is the role of India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. He encouraged attendance at vast Hindu religious ceremonies which generated an intense reproduction of SARS-COV-2 (the name of the actual virus — COVID-19 is the name of the disease in humans). Experts had warned that crowded conditions that concentrate viral spread are ideal for generating new variants. This was apparently the origin of Delta.

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Another cause of the rapid spread of Delta in England was that many of those coming from India were returning citizens of the UK who live in overcrowded conditions and are unable to completely “self-isolate”, so that young people from their households become carriers. In my country, bad housing suffered by immigrant communities has regenerated the disease. Are those who then catch it suffering from the modern slums of Bradford as well as COVID-19’s Delta variant?

In the 1990s, Merrill Singer, an American medical anthropologist, and others, developed an approach designed to identify the social interactions behind the spread and mortality rates of disease, as well as the biological causes. They concluded that public conditions and personal circumstances interacted “synergistically” with a disease and its clusters. They termed the pattern of its mortality rates as a “syndemic”. Writing in the British medical journal The Lancet, its editor Richard Horton applied the term to what is happening with COVID-19. He observed, “we must confront the fact that we are taking a far too narrow approach to managing this outbreak of a new coronavirus”. It was scything down people with pre-existing conditions who became a source of its transmission because of their need for treatment. “The vulnerability of older citizens; Black, Asian, and minority ethnic communities; and key workers who are commonly poorly-paid and with fewer welfare protections” meant that the mortality of the disease has “social origins” not just biological ones. “This is not a pandemic,” Horton concluded, “it is a syndemic”. What we are now experiencing around the planet is not the impact of a disease spreading evenly across human populations as a plague. We are living through the interaction of a range of causes. If we really want to manage and limit its impact, Horton concludes, we need to approach COVID-19 as a syndemic, so that we can gain “a larger vision, one encompassing education, employment, housing, food, and environment”.

On their own, none of the social or political issues are 'the' cause of COVID-19’s devastation. Their joint impact is responsible: medical, political, social and economic

The Lancet article produced a conversation between medical experts. One wrote in agreement to add that ecological factors should be included. Another objected, saying it was wrong to call COVID-19 a global syndemic, because in countries like New Zealand, which had moved fast to isolate themselves from it, it was a regular pandemic and not a disease that interacted with other conditions. But she added, “I do not write this to dampen Horton’s use of the term, as I believe COVID-19 is syndemic in my country (the USA). This is precisely because pre-existing conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, respiratory disorders, systemic racism, mistrust in science and leadership, and a fragmented health-care system have driven the spread and interacted with the virus. These synergistic failures have caused more death and devastation than many other contexts”.

By calling it a syndemic, we identify the combined determination of the spread and consequence of the disease. On their own, none of the social or political issues are “the” cause of COVID-19’s devastation. Their joint impact is responsible: medical, political, social and economic.

Combined determination is one of the themes of this book’s exploration of whether a more human, democratic world can emerge from the present inter-connected crises of inequality, ecology, biology and authority. Short-term policy decisions interact with long-standing problems which are always expressed in historically specific ways. For example, in early February 2020 China’s Xi Jinping and America’s Donald Trump had an opportunity to collaborate in an effort to contain the virus. Had they done so both authoritarians might now be holding office. Instead, Trump also became a cause of the deaths and suffering around the world as well as in America. The point is not to “blame” him — or to use him as a scapegoat for the wider issues that helped create him — but from now on to demand that voters and political leaders think and act “synergistically”.

This could be another description of “socialism” — because it combines the interests of all with an approach that is not determined by the market. I’ve mentioned Raymond Williams’ suggestion of using “livelihood” as a description of a future alternative to capitalism, when he felt the attraction of the word socialism slip away. Perhaps he did so because he had long argued that the left should talk about “socialisms” in the plural so as to recognise the complexity of any future that will release our “real energies”, but there had been no take-up for such a perspective.

I’ve backed off using the term “socialism” to describe the arguments I’m making because their ambition is to reach out to anyone willing to embrace the moral equality of all humans whatever else they think. Also, for my generation it is hard to disassociate socialism from state power and vanguardist organisations that are the opposite of democratic — and I do not want to be dragged back into that history with its many scar tissues.

Millennials and Generation Z sense the need for a way of living that embraces 'solidarity, compassion and cooperation'

Ironically, however, a report on how the idea of socialism has returned to life in England has just been provided by the country’s most venerable neoliberal think tank, the Institute for Economic Affairs. Concerned about rumours of the unpopularity of capitalism, it commissioned Kristian Niemietz to produce Left Turn Ahead?, an in-depth survey that asked young people between the ages of sixteen and thirty-four, a generation for whom the Soviet Union is something akin to the First World War, what they think about socialism. 67% favour the idea. Even more, 75% believe that socialism has never been tried. The same number regard climate change as a problem of capitalism; 71% say capitalism fuels racism; and 73% that it fuels “selfishness, greed and materialism”, whereas a socialist system would promote “solidarity, compassion and cooperation”.

Furthermore, the shifts of opinion across the nearly twenty-year span between sixteen-year-olds and those who reach thirty-four, showed them moving leftwards with age. Whereas students who enthused about Lenin and Mao after 1968 dropped their anti-capitalist ideas, the report’s author claims, this generation, while less certain and strident, and with often confused views about what capitalism actually is, is becoming more consciously socialist.

All this suggests an ideal that is intrinsically participatory and democratic. If so, it needs to be the project of new socialists, not of new socialism

In the US there is also a generational embrace of an open-minded notion of socialism as an alternative to capitalism, encouraged by the influence of Bernie Sanders. Felix Salmon of Axios reported on a 2019 survey that showed eighteen to twenty-four-year-olds had a more positive view of socialism (61%) than of capitalism (58%), whereas only 27% of those over sixty-five had a positive view. While this might seem surprisingly high for those who have lived through forty years of relentless anti-socialist propaganda, the old overwhelmingly endorse capitalism (69%). A Gallup poll in 2019 showed a similar, relatively positive view of socialism by young Americans. It also showed that while they have a “subdued” view of big business they like “small businesses” and their reaction to the term “free enterprise” is overwhelmingly positive at over 90%.

If this research is valid, Millennials and Generation Z sense the need for a “unified alternative” to capitalism, which they call “socialism” and see it as a way of living that embraces “solidarity, compassion and cooperation”, that is opposed to racism, supports feminism and focuses on identity. At the same time they support free economic activity as a form of self-expression that serves the general good. They see no contradiction between “solidarity” and “enterprise”: a combination that is culturally welcoming and attentive to the feelings of others but also bracing and energetic.

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There is a long history of efforts to combine the benefits of competition and planning. They range from speculative and theoretical analysis of “market socialism” to cooperatives, mutuals and efforts to combine an open economy with a socialist state that began in the former Yugoslavia. There is also a tradition that Stuart White calls “Alternative Liberalism”, which goes back to John Stuart Mill and is liberal but not neoliberal, in that it refuses to give the values of capital a defining role over society.

All this suggests an ideal that is intrinsically participatory and democratic. If so, it needs to be the project of new socialists, not of new socialism. The difference is crucial. It is essential to grasp that there isn’t a singular, future nirvana that awaits us on the other side of capitalism. Others have made the same warning. Its significance is that historically the structure of feeling associated with the idea of socialism has promised an escape into the future that must not be “betrayed”, which then often permits, or has certainly been associated with, very oppressive behaviour in the present.

The dream goes back a long way and is intended to be emancipating. In his denunciation of the division of labour in The German Ideology, Karl Marx evoked a “communism” where we can “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner”. OK, he was just in his late twenties, he dashed it off, he, himself, never published it.

But cattle can’t just be looked after “in the evening”, any more than bringing up a child. Real life demands a positive division of attention and commitment. Instead, Marx expresses a passion for a realm of plenty that often haunts the notion of socialism: a desire for a future in which politics has been abolished, the state has withered away, all are equal and the rule of law can be discarded into its bourgeois dustbin. No socialist would openly advocate such a caricature perhaps, but the dream encourages contempt for any “concessions” to the present, as it idealises a future uncontaminated by our mortal history. In this way the dreamwork of revolutionary thought has contributed to a depoliticisation which is intrinsically disempowering.

We have to do better than actually-existing, hyper-unequal capitalism with its nation states, their corporations, violence, corruptions and militarism, that is currently destroying the world. In our different societies, the economy must be governed by priorities set by energetically democratic governments, hopefully motivated by solidarity, compassion and cooperation. We need to deliberate and act holistically, putting the values of humanity first. This is the lesson being taught us by the COVID-19 syndemic. Whether or not it will lead to socialisms across the world matters less than the need for politics in the here and now to become synergistic.

In Memory of Julian Perry Robinson

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