There’s an old cliche that you never know who your true friends are until something goes wrong, and that’s certainly been true enough over the course of the pandemic.
On the one hand, 2020 saw the best of humanity on display, for example when Freedom’s callout for emergency mutual aid in the absence of State action went viral, with hundreds of groups being founded and vast numbers of people getting involved. Many are still active, falling somewhere between everyday support network, small ads outlet, and spambox for politicos trying to recruit new followers.
The level of selfless effort that has gone on over the last year has been immense, and so was the frankly incredible discipline of the working classes, who generally stuck to lockdown far better than the entitled wealthy fleeing to Cornish coastal retreats or their homes in the country. And not only that, but the working class took on all the most dangerous work, for a bit of clapping and apparently not a penny more in pay, so that people continued to be fed, clothed and cared for even in the worst of it. It should always be remembered that during the greatest crisis of modern times, workers sacrificed and died for the good of us all while the rich took a holiday and watched their profits rise.
On the other, we saw a large section of often fairly privileged society moaning endlessly about (and usually not bothering with) having to make any sacrifices at all. The anti-lockdown marches, full of carpet-bagging conspiracy theorists flogging their latest Great Reset canon. Or at Freedom bookshop, once the first lockdown was over, where people would show up and angrily mutter “exempt” at our volunteers, or declare us fascists for asking them to wear a mask to help us stay safe. These mostly being the sort of people who had clearly never seen cause to wear a mask at a protest, or fight actual fascists.
It’s this tendency which I’d like to address, as it provides a lesson in the toxic outcomes of four decades of objectivist dogma, which have persuaded far too many of us that “we live in a society” is only a meme.
The lie of personal responsibility
The current watchword from Sajid Javid, replacing the mask mandate and self-isolation rules, is “personal responsibility,” a longtime supposed Tory fetish which doesn’t stand up against say, the introduction of the Policing Bill, or their plans to tell universities and students who they should invite to talks, or Prevent. But even as a catchphrase, it’s particularly weak here because so little coherent effort has been made over the last year in explaining what “personal responsibility” with regards to Covid safety really means. And no effort at all has been made to enable “personal responsibility” from say, workers needing to self-isolate in the face of the bosses’ desire to keep the rota full1. And this is because they haven’t a clue how to square the circle of modern neoliberalism, pushed in its most “fuck you” form by states and companies the world over, and today’s specific need for social solidarity.
The word “personal” is the main difficulty. For the blunt (not to say dense) individualist, “personal” is now largely confirmed as meaning “do as you will, on your own head be it.”2 But Covid, as with so much else, is not “personal,” it’s collective.
To take a simple example of this, if you’re in a lift with others and need to fart it is technically your “personal responsibility” to keep it in — there’s no law saying you can’t let rip. Most people, of course, try to hold fire. Why? Because the supposed “personal” choice is actually a collective one. You are choosing to avoid creating a bad smell for everyone else, who has not consented to this imposition but would still have to put up with it. They are choosing likewise. In the absence of this collective behaviour we’re all eventually left gagging.
Mask wearing, self-isolating and taking care around crowds of people, particularly indoors, is of a similar ilk but with much, much more serious outcomes. If the wrong person accidentally breathes in your germs you’ve killed them, or perhaps their grandparent, or immuno-compromised friend. And in 2020 we saw outright what the consequences of misconceived and poorly organised approaches to managing this threat can have. An attitude of laissez faire allied to the popularity of blunt individualism, when the government refused to stop the wealthy from having their getaways and business meetings in early Covid hotspots, was ultimately responsible for most of 150,000 deaths. Time and again they tried to place the onus on society to control the virus through “personal responsibility” without acknowledging that they and their predecessors have been merrily destroying any sense of social responsibility since the ’70s.3
Fools like Javid, reportedly an extreme fan of Ayn Rand, have no concept of this being a problem. For Javid, and many others in his party, peons can die as long as the Brilliant Individuals, titans of capital (the rich and bosses, to you and me) are freed to find market solutions and keep the economy humming. For the Health Secretary this is in fact a chance to confirm his ideology — that the best and only way in which humanity can solve problems its to let sociopaths have at it and encourage such behaviour everywhere. And whatever the outcome, he will declare the victory of his beliefs.
A Freedom Day Hullabaloo
Hence we are now presented with this unlocking “plan” (happy Freedom Day, by the way) in which we are told to take responsibility for being safe but provided none of the tools to actually do so. Javid and Johnson are, obviously, attempting to prioritise the economy over human life, with the idea indeed that the former is key to the latter. Gambling, with scant evidence, that vaccination rates will be high enough to avoid mass hospitalisations and another spiralling death count, reaching that “herd immunity” level they were originally angling for in 2020. With hospital admissions doubling every 11 days and a projected 100,000 cases a day by the end of the month, the NHS will have no respite from the winter surge, which left the service with a backlog of 5.3 million procedures.
Javid himself having now caught it despite two jabs, and Britain being increasingly heavily quarantined by other countries (Belgium, Denmark, Italy, France etc) their hopes are looking more and more remote. But if it all goes wrong they have their excuses ready. “We told people to be careful,” they’ll say. Except they didn’t. They told people it was “personal responsibility,” touted vaccines as essentially rendering the problem a thing of the past, and allowed their most senior representatives to repeatedly flout their own rules — including yesterday’s astonishing announcement, (quickly retracted) the day before those rules are relaxed, that Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak would simply be ignoring an isolation notice.
This haphazard, self-conflicted attitude has nothing to do with responsibility of any kind. On the contrary it’s been rooted in a perspective of “how quickly can we ditch this imposition, how far can we dodge responsibility, how many lives can we get away with sacrificing while keeping as much of the capitalist status quo as possible on track?” This deep Tory desire to simply ignore the pandemic has been evident throughout, from late closures and fairytale thinking to endless right-wing press articles demanding and lauding lockdown’s end. Bar some initial heavy-handed showboating from the police in the early days, and a series of set-tos with the new free party scene that would have happened regardless, it has not primarily been the government enforcing discipline in trying to save lives. Shops and buses were never filled with coppers forcing compliance, in fact police repeatedly said outright they wouldn’t even try to do so and, certainly in Tower Hamlets, the idea of everywhere being shut over the winter became something of a joke.4
Rather the people themselves have been the main driver, often in the face of bosses’ pressure, working off the advice of scientists and healthcare workers, with the reluctant backing of the powers that be merely underscoring what’s needed for those who wouldn’t listen to any other line. It has been the State’s avoidance of responsibility which has been most evident.
Masks, lockdowns and anarchism
The most blatant recent evidence of this commitment to laissez faire, Johnson’s controversial dropping of the mask mandate, has actually involved no real change in government activity, acting in practice as nothing more than Westminster signalling that not wearing a mask is fine, really. If that’s your preference. This of course has immediately wrongfooted a large number of people who had been insisting that the mask mandate was part of a grand plan to degrade the public’s sense of independent action and now find themselves essentially in agreement with a Tory position. And worse still, working to undermine a normalised wearing of masks in public while the government quietly gets back to the drilling the use of facial recognition software through everyday life. A development that has greater implications for chilling the right to protest than even the Policing Bill.
The science of wearing masks is by this point fairly far forward, suggesting that cheapies cut about 50% of transmission outwards and offer a lesser level of protection against catching it. Good masks can hit 80% plus. This builds from an early balance of scientific opinion in favour of using them which, on top of the case for fighting back against state surveillance particularly of protests, was why I personally supported mask wearing a year ago. And it’s why I still support masks and caution now that the government has abandoned both in its haste to try and “re-open the economy.”
Lockdown’s impact on caseloads and deaths was similarly marked, on every graph that mattered. Neither would have happened if the public had not broadly been in agreement, because the State was so ambivalent that serious pressure could well have taken the wheels off.
Within anarchist thinking there have, naturally, been many lines on this subject. On what the correct response to both government action and inaction regarding Covid should be, its lockdown orders and lack of such. On one end there was the outright contrarian response that anything the government says is automatically to be resisted on the grounds they’re up to no good. On the other was a view that, in crisis, complying with government edict was the most practical measure to keep people safe. While the former tended towards parody when seen stood cheering David Icke, the latter had its own problems where it risked tacitly yielding the debate to State and capital.
A position somewhere between the two poles however is the one which, in the light of all that’s happened, seems to have weathered the best. That what rules the government imposed, the lockdowns, mask mandate and suchlike, were irrelevant to our aims other than as a general guide to how the science was interacting with the State’s priorities. In some cases they fit, in others they didn’t, but ultimately what was needed was for solidaristic behaviour to happen, to save lives. So it didn’t, and doesn’t, matter whether the government tells us it’s legal or illegal to wear masks. Or what its views are on the lockdowns where, every time, it gave in to the realities too late. What matters is encouraging the instinct of our society to act to help itself.
Which is why, when the State ceases to care about masks amid spiking Covid caseloads, and it drops all formal advice on caution when crowding into social spaces, and it tries to eviscerate the self-isolation system, For The Economy, we needn’t U-turn in another spasm of contrarianism, or embrace a new reality of everyone getting sick, but can continue to advocate for masks and caution. We can and must pressure for the worker’s right to go home rather than stay at work, ill, coughing over colleagues and customers alike. As anarchists, we cannot simply allow the government to dictate according to its economic priorities, bring down a deluge of delusional thinking and rush the public into avoidable catastrophes.
Once again, it is up to the people to look after each other, because the State certainly won’t do it for us.
- In fact the opposite is being imposed, with Universal Credit being cut by £20 in an effort to force people back to work on more desperate terms and talk of self-isolation rules being relaxed from next month. Quite how people can be expected to freely exercise personal responsibility under pressure from employers is left unexplained.
- While heavily pushed by modern capital it should be stressed this sort of one-dimensional “individualism” has little in common with the philosophy of Stirner et al, which stressed that it is often ultimately in the interests of the individual to sacrifice for the collective benefit.
- This trend had been in evidence for some time before covid came along of course, historically with a great deal of benefit for the Tories. A generation of council tenants turning into homeowners, destruction of the organised left and the rise of “Greed is Good” secured them a solid bedrock of voters even as they oversaw vast mismanagement of privatised utilities, the fall of high streets, abandonment of swathes of the North, astonishing corruption, the decline of UK PLC etc.
- The number of stores which suddenly sprouted boxes of wilted veg on their frontages was notable.
Pic: Victoria Station (2007), by Chris Beckett