It is now official: Britain is now under lockdown. Boris Johnson announced that in response to spread of Coronavirus in the UK and the crisis it has caused, the UK government will enforce a lockdown that will order people to stay at home, only to be allowed out if you are shopping for ‘basic necessities’, travelling to and from work, providing or receiving medical care or going out for exercise once a day. The announcement also mentioned the closure of all ‘non-essential’ shops and public spaces, banned all public gatherings of more than two people. Furthermore, the government has given the police to enforce these rules, to disperse any illegal public gatherings and to fine people who break these rules. This unprecedented lockdown will last for three weeks and then may be relaxed if ‘the evidence allows it’.
This still feels surreal a few days in. We are actually on lockdown. This isn’t a bad dream, this isn’t video game or a film. This is real life happening in the actual material world. I am still processing this reality that for the next weeks — which could even be extended further — while I am going out to the ‘essential’ shops I might have to ‘explain myself’.
Frankly, I had no intention of writing anything substantial directly on the Coronavirus crisis simply because the standard of the ‘debate’ (if you can dignify it as such) is atrocious. There are various things about the Coronavirus ‘debate’ from all directions that annoy me: the anti-Chinese prejudice; the usual conspiracy theories and deniers; the unrelenting search for scapegoats; the expert and generation wars; the chauvinistic sniping — especially from smug Anglos — of other culture’s more tactile expressiveness problematised for the spread of the virus; ghoulish Malthusians rejoicing that the virus is actually a ‘vaccine’ for the ‘virus’ that is humankind; the over the top apocalypticism of the mainstream media; people with an axe to grind against social practices that they personally don’t like but lots of people enjoy rejoicing that ‘in the age of Coronavirus’ it will stop or be eradicated.
To this end I never saw any benefit in getting directly involved in this horseshit, which is why most of my tweets on the subject have mainly been a little flippant and jokey, not because I don’t recognise the gravity of the pandemic, but because sometimes it is a good thing to ‘make light’ of a serious situation. If I adopted such a frigid attitude towards life 24/7 then I would go insane. Moreover, I, like most people, don’t know much about Virology and are just beginning to learn day by day about Coronavirus, so I wouldn’t add much to the debate anyway. Furthermore, I certainly can’t give you a magic bullet solution to this crisis.
However, the imposition of the lockdown (which let’s face it was inevitable anyway) and the response of certain people to it has forced my hand. It does not surprise me that sections of the media and mainstream commentators that have long called for Boris Johnson to impose a lockdown, who have lambasted him for weeks for not doing it quick enough, would then welcome it when it does actually happen. But what I find is how the headliners of the ‘radical’ Left have been joining the chorus and been rather unsceptical about any of this approach.
The irony of all this is that just three months this lot and their co-thinkers were calling Boris Johnson ‘hard right’ and ‘fascist’, but now they embrace this ‘fascist’ to imposing a diet martial law — let’s not bullshit ourselves it is martial law — and house arrest on the citizenry, among their main criticisms being making sure this ‘fascist’ government doesn’t impose this clampdown in a racist manner, not the fact that they are imposing a clampdown in the first place. It leads one to think that they didn’t believe a word of their shrill campaign against Johnson. It was all a cynical tactic at scaremongering to use ‘Fascist’ as nothing but a profanity evacuated of any political content hurled at enemies to rally the troops — nothing more!
That many of those who not so long ago were calling for ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’, complete with mining asteroids and a cyborg proletariat, are now shrieking for a regime of mass house arrest combined with state capitalist corporatism (“Coronavirus is gonna get you a Labour Manifesto whether you like it or not”) demonstrates the unseriousness and the desperate opportunism of much of the ‘radical’ left. Pathetic, yet sadly, not totally shocking from these useful #COVIDIOTS.
Now, one can make a convincing argument for why some form of lockdown is ultimately necessary as an emergency preventative measure, even that the government should’ve done enforced it earlier rather than dithering and always being reactive, rather than proactive. Most people accept, whether stoically or reluctantly, that for the near future life will be radically different, that social life will be on stand by, that you will have to keep your distance for self-preservation, and as a paradoxical act of mass solidarity to help protect those most vulnerable from this virus.
However, we must be aware of the danger of states exploiting a crisis, as it so often does, to take more power unto itself. Personally, I am sceptical of this lockdown for this very reason. The fact that it could be extended beyond three weeks and could last for months and its future implications for how a kind of bio-surveillance state buttressed by lockdown liberalism is beginning to emerge. If this state of social shut down is kept on indefinitely, at some point people’s tolerance will break.
This lockdown is security theatre: measures that attempt to make people feel more secure without actually doing anything to improve their security, to cover up for a lack of a proper public health strategy that should include mass testing so that we can actually trace the spread of the virus, break up the chains and spreading and eventually eradicate it. The really tragic aspect of this whole episode was Britain and many other Western countries had time to formulate a plan in the event of the clearly inevitable spread of this virus, but it wasn’t capitalised upon.
To elucidate just how absurd and unfeasible some of these lockdown regulations are: shopping and commuting to work necessarily involve large concentrations of people. Yet, people have to do these things to sustain their livelihoods and the material security of themselves and their family. These measures won’t do anything about these necessary activities that potentially could spread the virus. Then you will get the ridiculous situation of self appointed Guardians of Social Responsibility taking voyeuristically pictures of people cramming into public transport and pouring into shops (not helped by the London Tube reducing its services during rush hour which only exacerbate the overcrowding), bloviating on social media about how these irresponsible simpletons aren’t practising social distancing, thus demanding even more draconian measures from the state to make people ‘stay the fuck home’. Soon enough, the state will enforce new regulations like in France and Italy where curfews are established and you must have a certificate to be permitted to go shopping or travel to work. So long as people’s underlying material insecurity aren’t addressed then we will be stuck in this endless cycle of piling on more repression as the solution.
The instinctive authoritarianism of governments in Britain and elsewhere strips the legacy of neoliberalism and the technical incompetence of the state in providing resources, raw and nude for all to witness. Health services that have been gutted for years in the name of austerity, curbing public spending and ‘competition’ now have scarce resources and virtually no spare capacity to respond to a pandemic like this one that will cause a shock to the system. Hence why younger people who get the virus are told they are ‘not a priority’, and the government is appealing for volunteers to the NHS, calling on retired doctors and nurses to come back to the frontline and asking companies like Dyson to donate ventilators to the NHS. Moreover, it speaks to the fragmented political and social consciousness — again the result of decades of neoliberalism — , the inability of society to mobilise itself. Without this social dimension all you are left with is either individual or micro-community acts of charity, or the state exerting greater levels of control on the population, which in turn inflame the original problem.
If the 2008 financial crash was the beginning of the ‘End of the End of History’ then Covid-19 is it’s end. One consequence of this sordid pandemic has been the utilisation of ‘disaster socialism’ to restructure the global economic order. Because of this pandemic the state on a rapid and enormous scale is taking over large parts of economic and social life in various countries around the world with various stimulus packages carried out by governments of various political colours including those designated as neoliberal or right wing. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, chief business correspondent of the Daily Telegraph called on the Tories to become socialists in order to save liberal market capitalism (talk about dialectical thinking). The Economist published an editorial accepting this new era of state capitalism is here to stay.
Leftists shouldn’t rejoice because the truth is recent developments in capitalism forces it to make economic socialisation to sustain it in a crisis necessary. Capital restructures itself constantly to suit the needs of accumulation and the reproduction of the system. Whatever destruction occurs will create new products and market opportunities: the expansion of bio-surveillance and home delivery services, working from home becoming more popular, acceleration of automation, the expansion of mega corporations like Amazon into more areas of economic life etc.
Geo-politics too will be in a stage of reconfiguration as how states deal with the global pandemic will shape the geo-political scene in the future. The pandemic originated in the China, the regime covered up and suppressed vital information about this virus while it was still contained in China. Yet China’s centralised and authoritarian structures has been praised for its ability to contain the virus and mobilise its society, and it is raking in major political capital out of bringing masks and other medical equipment to countries such as Italy and the Czech Republic. Further discrediting the economic determinism that stated the spread of capitalist globalisation would axiomatically lead to liberal democracy, accelerating the trend of an authoritarian statist capitalism becoming the zeitgeist across the globe.
Covid-19 has radically changed societies across the globe — even if only temporarily. It has reorganised the world’s economy around state led planning, without a bullet fired or a general strike. As fast as you can click your fingers, our personal space radiuses have expanded, ingrained forms of social and interpersonal interaction across societies are now being problematised, altering our social and sexual lives, compelling us to behave in ways that feels unnatural. A silent, yet profound, global revolution with a non-human, non-sentient invisible agent originating from a bat effectively demobilising human society against its will. Like it or not we are currently living under its dictatorship.
Eventually social life will resume simply out of sheer necessity, as it would be impossible remain in this quarantined socially distant state indefinitely, but the shadow of this virus will be with us for a long time. What the future implication of this crisis and the global restructuring of the world economy and geo-politics will be is hard to predict in detail, but the near future does not look promising.
More importantly, the crisis Coronavirus has facilitated is a mere glimpse, a frame, for the the potential barbarism that awaits us if we don’t change course. This pandemic should be seen as a warning shot, like the attack of first gull in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic The Birds before the swarm descended upon the town. If there is one lesson we should take from the pandemic, it is that the present state of affairs cannot go on. Now it is up to us to change it and save the future before it disappears from our grasp.