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Incompetence, Cronyism, Repression: One Year On, What is the Covid State?

Last year, I wrote in this blog that the UK government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic crisis was one of ‘callous incompetence’.[1] In hindsight, that was no surprise: their incompetence stemmed from the deliberate underfunding and privatisation of public health services; their callousness was baked-in to the structurally violent principles of Tory ‘austerity’. That analysis has been bolstered by the state’s successive mishandlings of the coronavirus crisis – instances of glaring ineptitude have been frequent, and business interests have been repeatedly and explicitly prioritised over the lives of elderly and vulnerable people. The results of this callous incompetence are now painfully clear, with the UK currently shamed by the fourth worst death toll in the world per head of population.[2] The Petri dish of business-motivated social mixing spawned the B117 ‘British variant’ of Covid-19, which has a death rate that is up to 64% higher,[3] resulting in thousands upon thousands more deaths. The UK government has blood on its hands, and Prime Minister Johnson himself is culpable for ‘gross negligence manslaughter’.[4]

However, the UK government’s pandemic response has not been solely characterised by this clusterfuckery – a jealous guarding of state sovereignty has also been apparent in aspects of its Covid-19 response. Anarchist thinkers have long identified the jealousy inherent to the modern state; an exclusive sovereignty claimed against other nation states, secessionists, non-state geopolitical actors, and especially against independent organisation by the people themselves. Under neo-liberalism, the centrality of the state has been eroded and much of its productive capacity and governing power has been ceded to private corporations and supranational bodies. In a sense, the state no longer jealously guards its sovereignty, but hands it over willingly, acting as a ‘broker’ for capital [5] and intervening to shape society to suit market interests. The Covid-19 crisis appears to confirm this ‘unjealous’ ceding of productive capacity, with the UK government handing out £24.4 billion to private corporations to carry out core services and meet essential needs (up to 20th February 2021).[6] But of course, any premise of neo-liberal market competition has been absent during the crisis – this now-naked cronyism is only an augmented version of business-as-normal, a further blurring of the supposed distinction between state and capital. In fact, the crisis has enflamed the state’s most fundamental inherent jealousies, evidenced in attempts to co-opt and suppress the upwelling of community self-help initiatives that have autonomously addressed peoples’ needs during the crisis, and in its political policing of protest movements under draconian Covid legislation.

‘I am the Lord thy God Government’

Bakunin identified a common jealousy in God’s demand for exclusive worship of a single deity and the exclusive sovereignty demanded by the modern state.[7] Scathing anti-statism is to be expected from anarchists, but this recognition of ‘the jealous state’ also extends into the, not usually anarchist, field of International Relations. In the ‘orthodox’ IR reckoning, the state’s exclusivity has three competitors:

  1. other nation-states and secessionists, in a ‘claim to “ownership” of its citizenry’;[8]
  2. ‘nonstate actors in world politics’[9] such as world religions and internationalist ideologies; and
  3. ‘powerful financial and market interests’[10] including multinational corporations and supranational institutions.

The conspicuously absent fourth ‘competitor’ is the people’s own capacity for independent organisation. Kropotkin wrote that emerging early-modern nation-states, whether republican, parliamentary or monarchist, were ‘agreed in asserting that no separate unions between citizens must exist within the state … “No state within the state!”’[11]

The first two facets of state jealousy are abundantly evident in the UK context: today’s ‘enemy’ nations include Russia and China; Scottish nationalists are loathed secessionists; Islam is a feared global spectre; and Brexiteers portray the European Union as a supranational affront to British sovereignty. The third jealousy, against ‘financial and market interests’, ought to be redundant under neo-liberal globalisation, but the idea that the UK state simply cedes its power to an extraneous private sector misunderstands the intertwinement between state and capital, and, as noted, this cronyism has proliferated during the pandemic crisis. The fourth jealousy, identified by anarchists like Kropotkin but not by orthodox IR scholars, functions quite differently. While jealousy of rival ‘geopolitical actors’ is framed as a defence against outside threats, the state’s demand for exclusive control over ‘its people’ is not understood as combating a threat, but is presented as a benevolent intervention ‘oriented to achieving the common good’.[12]

However, as James C. Scott [13] highlights, the results of state centralisation and control are ‘often disastrous’,[14] and so it has proved in the Covid state, with the toll in the UK by the end of February 2021 reaching 123,479 excess deaths.[15]

The crony Covid state

Neo-liberal ideology demands that the state ‘roll back’, offering up production and services to the supposed efficiencies of free market competition, and the UK government faithfully privatises any-and-all of its functions as a priority. This has been augmented in the Covid-19 pandemic crisis, with unprecedented sums handed over to private corporations. Indeed, the UK government no longer has the capacity to meet basic social needs, even at a time of crisis – the state has already outsourced itself to the point of incompetence.

So, UK Prime Minister Johnson was correct to say that ‘[i]t wasn’t the state that made the gloves and masks and ventilators that we needed at such speed’,[16] but his subsequent vaunting of ‘the private sector, with its rational interest in innovation and competition and market share’ as rising to the demands of the crisis simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Under emergency procurement measures since 18th March 2020, competition for government contracts has been suspended.[17] Up to the 20th February 2021, well over 3,000 contracts had been handed out with no tender process.[18] Millions of pounds have gone to companies that don’t have any employees or trading history.[19] Contracts worth £1bn have been awarded to Tory party ‘friends and donors’.[20] More than 40 million items of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) supplied by these contractors has been found to be faulty or unusable.[21] And those are just the figures that are available – in February 2021, the UK government was found to have ‘acted unlawfully’ in its failure to even publish the details of Covid-19-related contracts.[22]

The sheer enormity of these figures reveals the depths of state/corporate profligacy and cronyism (and is a far cry from Johnson’s celebrated ‘rational interest’ of the competitive market). Of course it is not the case that the state has forgotten its jealousies when it comes to the private sector, it’s just less and less possible to distinguish one from the other. The state’s core jealousies are not directed outwards, they are directed downwards.

‘No state within the Covid state!’

The state’s failure to meet people’s immediate needs in the pandemic crisis was addressed by a blossoming of local-level mutual aid initiatives. Thousands upon thousands of people joined together to support vulnerable neighbours, produce PPE, deliver food and medicines, and much more besides. The striking characteristic of these mutual aid groups is their autonomous organisation, quite separate from established charities, political parties, or indeed the state.[23] This vital self-help response has been celebrated on this blog,[24] by numerous anarchist writers,[25] [26] [27] and even in the mainstream media.[28] It says something about the prominence of anarchist thinking within contemporary social movements, and in the context of Covid-19 more specifically, that even parliamentary socialists such as Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘Peace and Justice Project’ have co-opted the terminology of mutual aid (albeit while watering down its anti-statist character).[29] More subtly perhaps, Dean Spade’s practical guide to mutual aid on (the New Left/Marxist) Verso Press details anarchistic organising principles such as direct action, consensus decision-making, and flat hierarchies, but couches the ‘solidarity not charity’ argument euphemistically within a nebulous ‘left-wing’ politics.[30] In the early stages of the crisis even the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party in the UK recognised that ‘[w]e need these sorts of [mutual aid] initiatives more widely’ but appeared to completely misunderstood the concept by continuing that, ‘they must be funded by councils and the government’.[31] However, this rush to stake a claim in the proliferation of mutual aid initiatives has not been ubiquitous on the left, with some ‘democratic socialists’ rejecting mutual aid because of its anarchist ramifications,[32] and other Marxists arguing that mutual aid is merely an extension of ‘ethical consumerism’ and therefore does not ‘represent a threat to the structures of global capitalism’.[33] But the key point here is that the state (the crony broker for global capitalism), has recognised mutual aid initiatives as a threat, and has, via co-optation and suppression, jealously squeezed out the space for these autonomous expressions of community self-reliance.

Cover art by N.O. Bonzo for the forthcoming new edition of Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid (due September 2021, PM Press).

The UK government’s first response was to try to co-opt the surge of mutual aid co-operation under a state-run volunteer scheme. The NHS Volunteer Responders was rolled out in March 2020 – 750,000 people signed up, but even during the first peak of virus infections, few volunteers had been assigned any tasks, leaving many ‘disgruntled that they [had] yet to be called upon’.[34] People’s energy and desire to help one another was wasted, or, put another way, successfully absorbed and directed away from autonomous mutual aid initiatives.

The severe shortage of PPE for frontline healthcare workers was a blatant symptom of the state’s abandonment of public service – Deloitte, outsourced to manage PPE provision, sold off the UK’s stockpiles just as the pandemic crisis was beginning to bite,[35] and the government then hurriedly spent (at least) £5bn to fill the subsequent shortfall.[36] Autonomous initiatives such as Scrub Hub stepped up to produce PPE, supplying healthcare workers directly. Other volunteer scrub production schemes such as For the Love of Scrubs (FtLoS) were recruited into the NHS Trusts’ procurement mechanisms. The co-optive and suppressive faces of state jealousy emerge here, with the autonomous Scrub Hub producers being threatened with prosecution for ‘circulating unregulated PPE’,[37] causing volunteers to leave groups for fear that they were doing something ‘illegal’,[38] while the founder of the officially compliant FtLoS was awarded an OBE.[39]

Otter Lieffe compares the state to ‘an abusive lover who grip[s] ever tighter the more it los[es] control’,[40] and, indeed, this has been the result of the UK government’s ‘jealousies’ during the Covid-19 pandemic crisis. Not only have autonomous self-help initiatives like Scrub Hub been concertedly repressed, but the massive expansion of police powers under the ‘Coronavirus Act’ has been repeatedly used to prevent protest gatherings that are critical of the government or the police. These Covid powers have been used to disrupt protests by Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, Stop HS2, trade union activists protesting against the measly 1% pay raise for NHS staff, asylum seekers protesting against abysmal conditions at Napier barracks, and even against a trio of squatters in an empty office building in Bristol.[41] The most recent instance of this political policing was against the Reclaim These Streets vigil on the 13th March 2021 – social media users were quick to highlight that this brutal police reaction differed markedly from the ‘light touch’ police response to a mass gathering of football fans in Glasgow City Centre less than a week earlier.[42] Neil Middleton notes (in a forthcoming AnarchistStudies.Blog article) that, while the police have benefited from this Covid-19 power grab, the process of expanding police powers was already in train under the auspices of the previous ‘crises’ of terrorism and anti-austerity protest movements. And, as the Network for Police Monitoring highlights, the UK government are using the cover of the current crisis to make these protest-policing powers permanent.[43]

Another Covid-19 power grab takes the form of ‘vaccine passports’. These are already in effect in China and other countries that ‘rank low in global freedom indices’ such as Bahrain and Brunei,[44] and have been implemented in Israel,[45] are scheduled for deployment in Ireland,[46] and look very likely to be rolled out in the rest of the European Union [47] and the United States too.[48] Trade unions such as the University and College Union have recognised the scheme’s inherent risk of inequity and discrimination against workers,[49] but the most vocal opposition to vaccine passports has come from vaccine refuseniks and right-wing ‘libertarians’ such as Big Brother Watch [50] and spiked magazine.[51] Despite the magnification of existing inequalities that vaccine passports will herald, and despite the clear authoritarian implications of an expanded surveillance state, anarchist commentators have been almost silent on the issue – searches for ‘vaccine passport’ on popular platforms such as Anarchist Agency,,, and Freedom News return no results at all (now at least one mention of vaccine passorts – ed). Vaccine passports are an amped-up rehash of the New Labour government’s attempt to impose compulsory identity cards under the guise of the ‘war on terror’, and, no surprise, Tony Blair has piped-up as a cheerleader for vaccine passports.[52] Perhaps there is some squeamishness about opposing authoritarian bio-surveillance because conspiracists and ‘gammons’[53] have already seized upon the issue, but this was also the case with some dodgy elements of the ‘NO2ID’ campaign of the mid-to-late 2000s. Anarchists were instrumental in concurrent campaign groups such as Defy-ID that helped to defeat that previous ID card scheme; the absence of concern around this issue now is conspicuous.

The state requires its ‘subjects and resources [to] be assets, serving the imperatives of the state’.[54] When people challenge those imperatives by organising independently to meet their own needs, the state rushes to re-assert its sovereignty and oppressive control. This is the jealousy at the core of the state – not against geopolitical competitors and certainly not against market interests, but against the people’s own ability to organise themselves. We are the threat they really fear.

~ Jim Donaghey

This article was orginally published in Anarchist Studies here.

Featured photo by Matt Brown, published under CC BY 2.0. Grafitti artist unknown.

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