‘There are no conditions of life to which a man cannot get accustomed, especially if he sees them accepted by everyone around him.’
In October 2009, less than a year before his death from Lou Gehrig’s disease, the British historian Tony Judt invoked Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to an audience at New York University while explaining the changing nature of citizens’ relationships with their states. Born in 1948 – the year his home country became the first to establish a National Health Service free for every resident – Judt understood that Western democracies had lived through two distinct political transitions during his lifetime.
The first, following the horrors of two world wars, saw the delivery of wide-ranging public provision funded by taxation and directed by the state – over three decades (‘les trente glorieuses’) the life chances of populations steadily improved and inequality declined. The second phase, set in motion with the ascent of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the USA, constituted a reaction to this – the state would play a smaller role in people’s lives, with financial markets deregulated and public services increasingly delivered by private contractors.
Judt, speaking in the aftermath of the last great financial crisis, noted the evisceration of the state’s ‘responsibilities and capacities’ had ultimately ‘diminished its public standing’ – a common bond between citizens had been sacrificed in the name of competition. In the decade since his passing, during which austerity regimes chipped away at the remnants of the post-war settlement, a distinct sense took hold that fostering shared purpose was of little interest to those in power.
The Covid-19 crisis of 2020 presents an accidental opportunity for society to rally around a common programme. At this time, it is perverse to argue that the state – obligated to direct our emergency response – should take a back seat to ensuring economic efficiency, let alone private sector profiteering. To all but the hardest-hearted, fighting the virus and saving lives is of greater importance.
Yet, writing from a vantage point of London – six months after a stay-at-home order was first issued by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and with a second wave (in his words) ‘inevitable’ – it has become clear that the British government has chosen to prioritise the perceived needs of business over the health of its citizens. Interventions have seemed more confused than coordinated – in recent months, the public has been offered contradictory advice on whether or not to return to workplaces, frequent pubs and restaurants, or send their children into schools.
When resources were critically lacking, a weekly clap for NHS workers took place. Volunteering schemes were promoted so that citizens could fill in for the threadbare state – helping to forge local networks where a spirit of competition was notably absent. Given an opportunity to ideologically revive itself, British politics has returned to business as usual.
From the moment the public health emergency was declared, a parochial and insular political culture has seen sclerotic Government ministers appear alongside timid opposition figures on television news programmes and within the shrinking margins (in outlook, space and profit) of national newspapers. Visiting Parliament last month, the congregated MPs, researchers, lobbyists and journalists seemed primarily consumed not on how best to adequately resource state infrastructure in order to mitigate the effects of the virus, but by issues of court intrigue and petty personal conflict.
The Transnational Institute’s (TNI) 12-part Covid-19 webinar series – held between April and June 2020 – provides an essential counterweight, offering lucid critique of the haphazard global response to the outbreak and alternative pathways towards how society can better emerge from the crisis. The conversations break free from national constraints to address an internationalist agenda – bringing together voices from both global north and south and championing community-based activism across borders. Panellists understand that politics does not simply take place within parliaments or the pages of the press – and that tackling inequalities need not be left to those professing theoretical expertise.
At a conjuncture when, as in 2008, political parties appear to be missing-in-action, we hear of ordinary citizens drafting themselves to provide essential support to the most disadvantaged. Many agree that the present emergency necessitates urgently establishing and resourcing universal public healthcare services across the world – free for any person to use. Where there is growing unease about the power of illiberal strongmen and monopolistic tech titans, the plight of migrants and incarcerated peoples, there is hope garnered from social movements in their ascendancy – black liberation, green campaigns, feminism – which have never before attracted such wide-scale public support.
In one TNI webinar, author Quinn Slobodian argues that Covid-19 can be viewed in three ways; as an X-ray exposing existing structural deficiencies; a dress rehearsal for upcoming humanitarian crises; and a dynamo accelerating prevailing political currents. Authoritarianism, xenophobia, and corporate capture of state institutions have been increasingly tolerated in recent years and will likely embolden, instilling a climate of isolation and fear amidst the most oppressed communities on the planet.
In bleak and confusing times such as these, there is a tendency for myths to perpetuate – not only in the realm of conspiracy, where 5G technology caused the virus or the search for a vaccine is a Bill Gates-led plot to enslave humanity, but in something even more pernicious: the idea that those in power know what they are doing. The way the pandemic has been dealt with proves that they do not.
The overarching question posed by the TNI series is stark: with the ‘new normal’ as yet undecided, will citizens accept terms dictated by politicians and market forces? Or will they be able to collectively rethink and rebuild their relationship with the state, taking the reins to reroute humanity’s future direction?
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