Viewpoint by Adam Ramsay*
This is the first of a two-part article originally published on openDemocracy. Any views or opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of IDN-InDepth News.
LONDON (IDN) – The technocrats are on the rampage.
When [British Labour Party leader] 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. Tory [Conservative Party] 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 [British newspaper columnist and Labour Party activist] 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 a recent Democratic primary debate in the United States, one commentator complained that Bernie Sanders was attempting to make COVID-19 “a healthcare issue”. Responding to 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 responses: “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.
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.
The [UK] Chancellor [of the Exchequer] 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 1.5 trillion dollars 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.
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.
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 February 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’). 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, which 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, which 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.
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.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 01 April 2020]
* Adam Ramsay is an editor at openDemocracy.
Photo: Responding to Opposition Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn’s demands of the UK government in light of the coronavirus outbreak, Tory MP Jonathan Gullis accused him of try to “play party politics with a health crisis”. Credit: eremycorbyn.org.uk
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