Coronavirus: when the clapping’s over the fight to take the country back must begin

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When politics is reduced to theatre, when the gesture becomes prized over the deed — and this in the midst of the worst crisis we have faced in Britain since 1940— then we’ve reached the point where mass somnolence and acceptance of a status quo dripping in injustice has taken the place of public anger and accountability.

The unvarnished truth is that after decades of free market assault on the public sector, accompanied by the demonisation and devaluation of public sector workers by a reactionary mainstream media — owned by a clutch of billionaires for whom the public realm is the sworn enemy of their fanatical attachment to the verities of the market — we’ve found ourselves naked and trembling in the face of a pandemic.

Coronavirus has exposed our government as a clutch of third rate incompetents whose threadbare response to the crisis has been of a piece with slapstick comedy - though with a cast of characters who make every horror movie ever made now redundant. We have home secretary Priti Patel, a woman whose true calling, it’s abundantly clear, is the marketing of poison. Having spent a number of weeks conspicuously off grid, she resurfaced to host a daily press briefing, during which she proceeded to drive a coach and horses through the English language before promptly disappearing again. Health secretary Matt Hancock, meanwhile, is currently doing a faultless impersonation of a melting ice cube, from Dominic Raab radiates the warmth of the frozen tundra, while Michael Gove looks and sounds like Count Dracula’s butler.

Slapstick comedy reference aside, the grim reality is no laughing matter — not when we have care homes transformed into veritable death camps; not when a month into this crisis NHS workers, care workers, and others on the frontline still lack sufficient personal protection equipment, ventilators and testing; and certainly not when there is a distinct lack of organisation and joined up thinking between the various government departments.

But the calamitous response to coronavirus is not just the doing of the current government. It marks the culmination of the hegemony of free market ideology and nostrums going back four decades and peaking with ten years of austerity that cut to the bone what was left of our public services, including the NHS, turning us into latter day spectators at the Coliseum of the despair and suffering of the most vulnerable among us. It did so while propagating the grotesque idea that this is the best of all possible worlds.

Philosopher and psychoanalyst, Erich Fromm, whose works resonate ever still, argues persuasively that ‘Human existence is characterized by the fact that man is alone and separated from the world; not being able to stand the separation, he is impelled to seek for relatedness and oneness’.

The point Fromm is making here is not that we desire relatedness with one another, but that our species being dictates that we need it — and that when denied relatedness alienation and dysfunction is the result. In societal terms, relatedness is expressed in the level of social organisation and health and strength of our public services and institutions at any given point.

Free market (neoliberal) ideas are antithetical to human relatedness. It is why that if this pandemic teaches us anything it’s that we’ve been systematically reduced to a disorganised and disconnected mass of human dust. Thus the collective appreciation we now rightfully feel for the NHS and all who work in her, and also for our carers, cleaners, transport workers, bin men, and supermarket workers, remind us of the truth that no man is an island — that we need each other, and moreover that we need the aforementioned now more than we ever needed hedge fund managers, bankers, and a billionaire class whose greed is now so obscene you’d associate it with the dying days of Rome.

It is an utter and unalloyed disgrace that our key workers currently find themselves compelled to risk their lives just by going to work in the midst of a public health crisis and emergency that was entirely foreseen. Anyone who claims otherwise is an execrable liar and propagandist. Boris Johnson went to sleep at the wheel, embracing inaction in the interests of the economy rather than prompt action in the interests of public health at the outset. The result is that the UK is well on track to being the hardest hit country in Europe from coronavirus. If austerity can be categorised as social murder, this knavish Tory government’s handling of coronavirus has been public slaughter

We are entitled to ask how many of clapping these past few weeks voted in this government of fanatical privatising anti-NHS buccaneers (Dominic Raab, anyone) last December, highlighting the regressive part which false consciousness has played in fashioning the dystopia we have the temerity to call a society. Clapping along with Tory ministers, MPs, and right wing ideologues for the NHS and carers is like clapping along with cancer for chemotherapy.

Once this crisis ends, and who knows when, there must be a political reckoning, one that ensures there is no going back. And make no mistake, such a reckoning is at this juncture beyond the remit of parliament or the ballot box. The days of just taking it and going along to get along must end and they must end now. We need a mass movement — militant, determined, united — to take to the streets and take this country back from those who have wrecked it.


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