When Structures Break Down

The virus has suddenly reminded us of how dependent we all are on external structures. EM Forster anticipated this as early as 1909. See his short – and uncharacteristic – novel The Machine Stops, which has been resonating with me since this crisis began. As has much of the other dystopian science fiction of that deeply troubled pre-war period. (HG Wells was not the only one.)

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Public Service in a Crisis

I’m as scared as anyone just now; not for me personally – I reckon I’ve had my time, and been pretty lucky up to now, and can hardly wait to meet the Great Historian in the Sky (‘was I right about imperial absent-mindedness?’) – but on behalf of those close to me whom I love, and for humanity, which I also love in a more general way. And in the meantime, as well as being shocked by the actions of some of our great capitalists – Richard Branson, Tim Martin of Wetherspoons, that bloke who runs Sports Direct – I’m warmed by the generosity and ingenuity of many of our public enterprises, trying to make social isolation more bearable for us.

An example is the National Theatre in London, whose offer to relay its performances to our televisions and computers free via YouTube will ease the pain for the theatre-going portion of our population: a small minority, perhaps, but not to be sniffed at. From this week on, the NT will broadcast one of its productions every Thursday at 7 p.m. GMT – though I believe they can also be watched at other times over the week. Kajsa and I, inveterate theatre-goers when we’re together, will be watching them simultaneously from Hull and Stockholm, holding hands spiritually, and nipping out to our kitchens during the intervals for identical drinks. If anyone wants to join us, here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/user/ntdiscovertheatre. (Thanks, Ken, for the hint.)

That’s what I call public service during a crisis. You don’t get Wetherspoons offering to deliver free beer to us at a time like this, do you?

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One of the reasons for the public’s reluctance to follow the government’s advice over Coronavirus – self-isolating, social distance, no panic buying, etc. – may be the lack of trust they have in government just now. And that must surely have something to do with Boris Johnson’s – and, over the pond, Donald Trump’s – inveterate habit of lying, now so well-known and well-documented as to be no longer a partisan argument against them, and indeed to have become so accepted and tolerated by their supporters as no longer to be seen as a criticism. Which has obviously worked for them, in the political environment we (Brits) were in at the time of Brexit, when it played into the Brexiters’ hands and gave them their victory; but may not work so well in a genuine national (and indeed global) emergency, when the need for trust is vital in order to get all citizens to play their essential parts. A global pandemic requires transparent honesty in the world’s leaders to be able to counter it, which Johnson and Trump conspicuously lack.

Just look at them, at their televised press conferences! Ducking, weaving, hesitating, dissembling, bluffing; concerned only to say what they think will go down well at the moment, even if it has to be shamelessly denied and disowned the next day. In a circus that might count as leadership; but not at a time like this. We’re told that Winston Churchill is Boris’s hero and role model; but all he has taken from Churchill are certain superficial features of his style. It’s pathetic. (Literally: from the word ‘pathos’.) No wonder that idiot shoppers and pub-goers don’t necessarily go for it.

I’ve written about Johnson in previous posts. (Search ‘Boris’.) Most of that has been about his ‘character’, whose significance I’ve always nonetheless wondered about: shouldn’t I really be concentrating on his policies, rather than on what he’s like as a ‘chap’? It’s likely, however, that character does matter when people expect you to guide or lead them in times of real crisis. Games-playing with the truth won’t get you far when people’s health and lives are at risk.

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The Power of Music

I reckon I’m lucky. I can work at home, with no children to care for: I’d like to, but oldies are banned from our traditional role of looking after grandchildren; with kind neighbours and Tescos bringing me essential supplies; lots of books to read and ‘saved’ telly to watch; and the possibility of ‘virtual’ socialising via the internet. I dearly miss Kajsa, stuck over in Stockholm: if we’re going to die it would be nice to do it together; but I’ve never been a naturally gregarious person, and don’t much mind loneliness. I must say I’m scared by the news coming out of Italy, but at the age of 79 I reckon I’m nearing the end of my time anyway. And there are things to enjoy: like politics, thrown into disarray by the sudden conversion of the neo-liberal party to Crisis Corbynism, and the entertaining – in a ‘gallows’ kind of way – inanities of Trump and Johnson. Beyond that, no-one can predict.

That all sounds very selfish, and is; but it doesn’t stop my deep empathy for those who are less lucky than I am, and my admiration for those on the front line of the ‘battle’ against the Coronavirus: doctors, nurses, ancillary medical staff, my Tesco delivery drivers, parents of school-age children, and Gove’s much-maligned ‘experts’ in this field.

I’ve stopped listening to the BBC World Service at night – my usual way of trying to get to sleep, but too disturbing now – and started playing music instead. Last night it was a video of Gluck’s Orpheus and Euridice, in the 1859 version made by Berlioz. In fact I think I may play that every night from now on; the most beautiful music, expressing perfectly the sweet sorrow of the death we all need to prepare ourselves for at this moment.

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Who wouldn’t be glad to see Gordon Brown as PM again now? But of course his jokes weren’t as good.

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Universal Basic Income

About fifty years ago I had the brilliant idea that if everyone were paid a subsistence wage by the government – that is, out of taxes – without having to work for it, it would solve many of our social problems. Those who didn’t want to work wouldn’t have to, without being stigmatised by having to claim ‘welfare’. I’ve never felt judgmental towards those who haven’t wanted to work for money, especially if it left them free-er to do other things that might be equally beneficial to society: composing symphonies, for example. (Elgar would have been able to write at least another two if he hadn’t had to teach violin.) Another advantage would be that the work that had to be done would be left to those who really wanted to do it, or were attracted by the additional money they could make through working. This might require rotten jobs (refuse collection, proof-reading, being a minor royal) to be rewarded more generously than they are now, if people couldn’t be forced into them through the threat of utter poverty; but wouldn’t that be a good thing in itself? It might also require that inherited money or property revert to the State , so as to really ‘level the playing field’; but that should also swell the coffers out of which this ‘universal basic income’ would be paid. Additional sums could be given to people in case of genuine need, especially medical and child allowances; but this would be on top of a ‘wage’ that otherwise would enable them to live at a basic level. There would be no more of this ‘deserving/undeserving poor’ stuff. Everyone would deserve to live.

It’s only recently that I’ve learned that this is called ‘universal basic income’, and that I wasn’t the first to think of it. In fact the idea goes back to Thomas More’s Utopia (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basic_income), and has been tried out in a number of places, including most recently – I believe – Finland. (Ah, those Finns!)

And here it comes up again: in a proposal arising out of the present Coronavirus crisis, and its probable effect on employment and wages (see  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/19/calls-for-uk-basic-income-payment-to-cushion-coronavirus-impact.) Another ‘plus’, perhaps, to add to those I suggested a few days ago: https://bernardjporter.com/2020/03/15/looking-on-the-bright-side-3/. – Although I can’t see the Tories looking kindly on the prospect of the proles getting something for nothing, can you? (Next day: and here we are, right on cue: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/coronavirus-uk-update-universal-basic-income-iain-duncan-smith-a9411251.html).

I also, incidentally, invented highlighter pens, decades before they first came on to the market, as I can prove from my early research notes. If I’d thought of patenting that idea then, I wouldn’t have had to work for money myself. But then Thomas More was probably ahead of me there, too.

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Better the Devil…

I wonder whether the sudden and, as I understand, unexpected resurrection of Joe Biden in the Democratic primaries, eclipsing Bernie Saunders, has anything to do with Coronavirus? Quite frankly, if a general election were to be declared in Britain just now, I’d prefer a safe pair of hands to guide us through this present crisis, rather than a revolutionary, or – for that matter – a clown. (Jeremy and Bernie, of course, are the revolutionaries; Boris and Donald the clowns.) A pandemic on the present scale is no time to be radically upending the traditional verities. We can see to that when it’s all over. Until then, the only imperative is to steady the ship! Which is why, even as an enthusiastic admirer of both Saunders and Corbyn, if I were back in the USA I’d probably go for Biden; and for Starmer in the UK. Perhaps my American friends can tell me if there’s anything in this.

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We can’t tell how this will turn out. The best predictions are usually made on the basis of recent history. But that won’t work here. In the long ongoing historical struggle between self and society – a.k.a.Tory and Labour, or neoliberalism and democratic socialism, or (perhaps) Republican and Democrat – the great coronavirus crisis obviously interrupts the dominant narrative, with ‘emergency’ measures needing to be taken which bear little relationship to what has gone before. But when (if?) it’s all over, who knows? Will it be like World War I, after which life in Britain returned to ‘normal’; or World War II, when people learned the lessons of pre-crisis failures to use the new state agencies to strengthen peace-time society (see my last post); or a third alternative, with people choosing ‘strong leadership’ to guide them out of the national and global devastation that the crisis may have caused? At present few people are looking beyond coronavirus, understandably.

Still, we need to keep an eye open for some of the longer-term implications of any emergency legislation that might be brought in over the next few months. Without necessarily subscribing to the conspiracy theory that regards the disease as having been deliberately nurtured in order to provide a cover for other measures (Right- and Left-wing plots have both been suspected by crazies in the USA), it could well be that politically-motivated individuals could try to use  it for that purpose. I’m thinking here, of course, of men like Dominic Cummings; but we shouldn’t dismiss the notion that there may be plotters like him on the Left.

For example: we know full well that Cummings, Johnson and most Brexiters have become impatient with the restrictions that Parliament and the courts have tried to impose on the Executive in recent months. The last Tory manifesto promised – albeit vaguely – a revision of the whole British constitution in the light of this, in order to strengthen Boris’s and his lickspittle cabinet’s powers. What if MPs were suddenly induced to ‘self-isolate’ themselves from the virus, suspending Parliament, so leaving the present government temporarily unaccountable, and Boris (and Dominic) free to do their worst? All kinds of measures could then be taken which could leave long-lasting repercussions, quite beyond what might be necessary to ‘fight’ the virus, but hidden from attention by this great scare.

There are precedents for this. One that I’ve written about was the Official Secrets Act of 1911: on the surface a measure simply to counter German espionage, but with powers ranging far more widely and permanently than that, and passed by a panic-stricken and uncritical Parliament in a single day. Some of the consequences of that you can read about in my Plots and Paranoia. We need to be vigilant over this kind of thing over the next few months. The virus seems all-consuming at present. (Doesn’t it make all those years of debate over Brexit seem trivial and stupid?) The measures that are about to be enacted to combat it may be necessary. But we need to look in the cracks and shadows of them, to ensure that they don’t hold other future dangers, and opportunities for Machiavels to do their worst.

PS. (March 20): this is precisely what I’m nervous of: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/19/the-guardian-view-on-the-coronavirus-bill-strengthen-the-sunset-clause.

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The End of Ideology

‘This is not the time for ideology’, said Rishi Sunak, the UK’s new Chancellor of the Exchequer, at the Number Ten press conference this afternoon. He meant of course ‘free market’, or ‘laissez-faire’, ideology, of the kind that lay behind Osborne’s ‘austerity’ regime of the previous decade. That’s very welcome, of course, and undeniably necessary at this critical time. To an oldie like me, however, it’s interesting to hear neoliberalism being characterised as an ‘ideology’ at all. Conservatives in the past used to reserve the ‘i’-word for socialist beliefs, against which they stood their more sensible, ‘pragmatic’ approach to politics. Free markets were part of the ‘natural’ world, like the life-cycle of plants and the movements of the planets. State intervention in economics was unnatural, and so to be avoided.

The history of Britain over the past 200 years has seen the slow but growing dominance of the free market system, albeit unsteadily; with two or three brief interruptions, when the system has reverted to a more interventionist state. The major interruptions came after the two world wars, which clearly showed up the deficiencies of free marketism for warlike purposes, and got the people who had suffered at the hands of it in peacetime doubting the efficacy of it in their own domestic lives. After World War I (the ‘Great War’) this reaction flared up temporarily, but was then squashed by a resurgent capitalist class. After World War II, which itself came after a ‘Great Depression’, it took a stronger hold on the country, resulting in Britain’s major social revolution of modern times; which was the triumph of ‘social democracy’, and the creation of the Welfare State. That however only lasted for about thirty years, until Thatcher’s great counter-revolution reduced it to dust.

Those of us still faithful to the original revolution generally lost heart, which is the reason behind ‘Blairism’; or, if not, then hoped that the intrinsic flaws in the free market system might turn people against it eventually, provoking a reaction which might revive their social democratic dreams again. I hoped this might happen as a result of the Right-wing coup which went under the name of ‘Brexit’, which I expected to turn out so badly that it would ignite either a neo-fascist reaction, or a socialist one. I was patiently waiting for one of those, when the Coronavirus suddenly fell upon us.

Coronavirus is in many ways an equivalent of one of those earlier wars. In much the same way, it seems to have interrupted the broad imperative of history. In response to the crisis, an instinctively neoliberal Tory government is interfering with the ‘natural’ course of events to an extent undreamed of just two weeks ago, and probably in a way that a Labour government would also have done. For let’s be clear about this: the strict laissez-faire (or Malthusian) approach to the present situation would have been to let the disease take its course and cull ‘unproductive’ people – like us oldies – out, in order to allow the still vigorous parts of the population and of the economy to flourish to the benefit of all those who were left. (Johnson hinted at this early on.) That’s what happened in more ‘primitive’, ergo ‘natural’,  times, when scarcely anyone was permitted to live to the kind of age I am now.

It would be good if, after all this is over, people could reflect on its implications for our polity in more normal times. I imagine that the NHS will not be allowed to be decimated again in the way it was under Cameron and Osborne, with such cruel results today. Sunak is saying some quite Keynesian things now, which might take us at least half-way to a more social and collective form of democracy. After that, who knows? To my mind Johnson makes a very unconvincing Churchill, and I hope the deplorable rogue doesn’t get through the crisis with his reputation as unscathed as was his hero’s. (Can you see him on the back of a banknote?) But history has taken stranger twists.

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Looking on the Bright Side

Is this the end of civilisation as we know it? Or even of life on the planet? (OK; I’ve read too many Sci-Fi disaster novels. Take no notice.) Of course I have little idea of the probable outcome of the Coronavirus pandemic, having absolutely no expertise in this area. As a historian I could refer to earlier global pandemics, like the Black Death and Spanish Flu; but I’m not sure how relevant these are. And – as I heard another historian quoted the other day – ‘the future’s not my period’. So I can do no more than trust the experts, like everyone else has to: even our politicians, it now appears. It’s reassuring to see Boris at his press conferences flanked by proper medical scientists. And ditto Trump, at his second press conference yesterday, surrounded by some real experts; after his previous one had relied on CEOs of big businesses, like Walmart, to assure us how well capitalism was coping with the bug. And how much better the USA is dealing with it than all those pesky Europeans.

Personally I’m presently self-isolating, as an oldie with pulmonary problems. But that’s easy for me: able to work from home, and with Tesco delivering my food. Others aren’t so lucky; including Tesco’s delivery drivers: risking infection as they do at every house they call at. And of course medics – doctors and nurses – who are the real heroes of the hour. I imagine that, under Brexit, some of the foreign ones may have to return to Europe soon.

To cheer myself up I’ve been trying to think of some possible plusses from the present crisis (in the UK). I’ve not been able to come up with many. But here they are.

For the (political) Right:

Culling the elderly, the obese and smokers, who are the most vulnerable to the virus, so lightening the burden on our cash-strapped hospitals. (That has actually been suggested in Conservative circles.)

Enabling the blame for the inevitable post-Brexit economic recession to be put on the virus rather than on Brexit. (That too.)

Acting as a distraction for further right-wing government policies, like an assault on the BBC (the ‘dead cat’ strategy). Who will notice?

For the Left:

Culling of elderly Conservative and Brexit voters. Of course the advantage of that would only come with a new referendum and General Election among the still living.

Revealing the limitations of the policy of ‘austerity’, in leaving us unprepared for this kind of thing. E.g. NHS cuts. Casting doubt on the benefits of (late) capitalism in general. Revolution? No, but a return to Keynesianism at least. That seemed to be pre-figured in the (UK) budget on Wednesday.

Boosting egalitarianism. ‘We’re all in this together’: i.e. the rich are as vulnerable as the poor. – This was the effect of cholera in the 1840s. The governing classes didn’t bother about protecting the poor until the latter’s diseases spread to them too. Maybe the Coronovirus will get people thinking again about inequality.

As a result: the restoration of respect and support for social – that is government – intervention; and for previously much-maligned ‘experts’. Sowing doubts about the beneficence of capitalism in its modern form.

By killing so many it could diminish the labour market, so giving it greater bargaining power, and by that means raising wages. That’s what happened after the Black Death. The feudal lords’ resistance to this provoked the Peasants’ Revolt. On the other hand, most of the dead might not be economically active in any case; and mass deaths would also diminish consumption.

Finally, but perhaps unlikely, after his risible recent press conferences Trump could be finally shown up for the incompetent ass he is. The same for Boris, perhaps? Crises like this function as real tests of ‘leadership’. Trump obviously fails.

For us all:

Restrictions on travel, especially by air, will reduce the ‘carbon footprint’, so benefitting the planet.

People will have more time for useful and constructive activities, to replace going to football matches, concerts, and/or church. Time for the family, the allotment, reading, and individual soul searching.

Pushing boring Brexit off the news.

And it can’t do any harm for people to be reminded how fragile  their life on this planet is.

That’s all I can think of for the moment. And none of it will do much to compensate for the human suffering and huge economic disaster that Coronavirus is already wreaking in the world. Any more positive suggestions?

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