Photo: When UK prime minister Boris Johnson argued to "get Brexit done", he was making the case against parliamentary politics. Credit: Houses of Parliament. - Photo: 2020

There’s Nothing So Political as a Pandemic – Part 2

Viewpoint by Adam Ramsay*

This is the second of a two-part article originally published on openDemocracy. Click here for the first part. Any views or opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of IDN-InDepth News.

LONDON (IDN) – 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. 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.

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. [IDN-InDepthNews – 01 April 2020]

* Adam Ramsay is an editor at openDemocracy.

Photo: When UK prime minister Boris Johnson argued to “get Brexit done”, he was making the case against parliamentary politics. Credit: Houses of Parliament.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

Take care. Stay safe in time of Corona.

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