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The Two Worlds of the Coronavirus Pandemic

This crisis has exposed Thatcher's myth that there is 'no such thing as society.' In reality, the rich simply live as if they were responsible to no one – while others make their lives possible, argues Zarah Sultana.

The coronavirus crisis has forced the question about what kind of society we are — and provided contrasting answers. On the one hand, we see the notes scrawled in blocks of flats offering help to elderly neighbours, strangers organising food deliveries for people they’ve never met, and the outpouring of appreciation for the NHS. That’s an answer of solidarity. It expresses our willingness to care for one another and is true to the old trade union saying: ‘An injury to one is an injury to all. United we stand, divided we fall.’ 

These principles express the best of human nature. Any socialist society would have them as its fundamental tenets, dedicating every effort and marshalling every resource to meeting people’s needs. This is not a distant utopia. It is the world we can see around us day by day, the stuff of ordinary human kindness. In a crisis like this, we recognise the need to put the logic of the market on hold and step in to help one another. We don’t demand something in return for helping our neighbours; we just help them.

But these basic human impulses are criminally constrained by capitalism, which forces us to live and work for private profit rather than for social need. This is the other answer to the kind of society we are.

Even as the country was told to lock down, bosses forced staff to work in non-essential industries, while billionaires escaped to their luxury bunkers. With sick pay so low, many workers couldn’t afford to stay at home, even if that meant spreading the disease. Not that they would know: virus testing was only available to a select few. Tests were provided for the mega-rich and celebrities who could buy them from private health clinics, but not to frontline NHS staff, who were also denied proper personal protective equipment (PPE).

Illustration by Aless Mc.

This is the society of the free market. It puts a higher value on protecting profits than protecting lives. It empowers a handful of CEOs to dictate the fortunes of millions, with no accountability for laying off staff and plunging workers into poverty. It imprisons people who flee poverty or persecution, locking migrants in privately-run detention centres where the virus spreads like wildfire. And it has devastated our public services, driving the NHS to its knees even before the virus hit.

This society is not just cruel, it is irrational too. The choice to underfund and privatise the NHS left us all the more vulnerable to a pandemic. A report from the Centre for Health and the Public Interest (CHPI) as far back as 2014 showed that the government’s 2012 Health and Social Care Act would undermine the NHS’ ability to respond to a crisis like coronavirus. As Colin Leys wrote recently in Tribune:

‘What the report showed was that although a pandemic was at the top of the government’s civil risk register, the Lansley Act had dramatically increased this risk. Institutional memory and expert resources had been discarded, with no less than 10,000 key NHS staff made redundant. Responsibility for coordinating the response to an epidemic had been divided among a variety of agencies with no clear line of central authority, and private providers of NHS care were not subject to central direction … 

A narrow focus on efficiency conceived in market terms displaced a concern with resilience: spare capacity was redefined as “waste”. Hence the unforgivable lack of adequate personal protection equipment for clinicians and care workers, of ventilators, and of capacity to quickly produce and administer tests.’

But it wasn’t just in the health service where the free market undermined our response to coronavirus. Firms forcing staff to work ensured that the virus spread rapidly, while laying off workers en masse put the economy into free fall. What was rational for each capitalist was disastrous for the rest of us.

Here, then, is the truth revealed by this fatal virus: we are not really one kind of society, but two. We are a society brimming with goodness but governed by hierarchy and profit. The central demand of socialism could not be more appropriate. It is to put people before profit, removing the barriers imposed by capitalist markets to meet human need.

That simple demand was long rubbished as impossible, but things have changed. The Thatcherite dogma that ‘there is no alternative’ has been revealed as a con, with the state intervening on a scale not seen in decades. Overnight, the government decided that it would take action on homelessness. It found billions to prop up business, and then, with pressure from the trade union movement, it found more to protect jobs and incomes. 

Suddenly, resources were made available for the NHS. No one asked where the magic money tree was. No one doubted the feasibility of these interventions. Opposition to these policies was shown to have never been about practicality or affordability. It was always about an absence of political will.

However, it would be a mistake to think Boris Johnson has discovered his inner socialist. For one thing, the government acted scandalously late. And when they did act, their first priority was to protect big business, giving out no-strings-attached loans, losing any bargaining power it could have used to prevent layoffs. It chose to give mortgage holidays to homeowners, but refused to suspend rents for millions of tenants. And unlike countries such as Spain, instead of bringing private healthcare into public ownership, the government made a deal to prop up private providers.

The crisis has exposed the fantasy of Thatcher’s infamous proclamation that ‘there is no such thing as society.’ Even Boris Johnson has admitted it. The reality is — and always was — that the rich simply lived as if they were responsible to no one, while others made their lives possible. Covid-19 has shattered this illusion, and made our mutual dependence clear. In stark contrast to the establishment narratives which cast bankers, city traders, and hedge fund managers as fundamental to our economy, our real essential workers have been shown to be nurses, carers, cleaners, shelf-stackers, bus drivers — in short, the working class, in all our diversity.

The seeds of socialism are not in the panicked emergency measures of a Conservative government but in workers from New York to Italy, who are striking to demand safe workplaces during this virus. It’s in the General Electric workers in Massachusetts, who were laid off as their factories stood idle, but who protested and demanded that their plants were repurposed to make life-saving ventilators.

Illustration by Aless Mc.

We now stand at a crossroads. Every crisis reveals again how fragile the vaunted free market truly is, and just how much its advocates rely on the state. In 2008 bankers ran to the government for help and then made the rest of us pay their debts for the next decade. But in 1945 the British working class insisted that if we could house and care for everyone during a crisis, we could do it in peacetime too. The path we take today is up to us.

We have all seen the harm of hoarding during this crisis, but if you’ve been worried about the man across the street grabbing all the loo roll, wait until you hear about Richard Branson and billionaire landlords. Let’s now break their power. If you’ve been angry at corner shops that jack-up prices, you’ll be horrified at what drug companies do.

So let’s end the pharmaceutical racket and bring this industry into public ownership. If the idea of people being homeless or hungry right now appals you, don’t let that anger die when this is over. Let’s have universal basic services for all, giving everyone the decent standard of living they deserve.

Socialists know two things: that a better world is possible, and that we have to fight for it. This crisis has put many of the old rules on hold, but not all of them. The Conservatives are still the party of capital. Someone is going to have to pay for this crisis in the end. This government will do all they can to ensure that it’s not their billionaire donors.

We can’t let them do that. The nurses they called ‘unskilled’ yesterday, when they were so keen to ban them from our country, might help save your life tomorrow. It is time to build a society that reflects those workers who really keep our country going, the multiracial, multi-generational working class on whom we all depend.

That’s what socialism is; the belief that the working class can run society together — that we don’t need bosses or masters to do it for us. It’s the belief that we’re stronger if we plan our own future, caring for one another along the way. This is the society we can build together.