As I write this, London is quiet. Not silent but quiet. The marketing executives and public relations officers and project managers are staying at home. The supermarket cashiers and biochemical engineers are working harder than ever. The children are still at school, for another day or two. The street food traders and minicab drivers are carrying on, because how else are they going to pay the rent? The nurses and doctors are staring into the beginning of a terrifying future.
The Chancellor has just announced a package to avoid the economy going into free-fall. Already the Confederation of British Industry and the Labour Party agree that it’s nowhere near enough. For all its unprecedented size, it is the sort of trickle-down, credit-fuelled neoliberal policy we have become accustomed to; loans to business owners and holidays for mortgage-holders, which is somehow expected to save the livelihoods of workers and renters. A few days ago the Secretary of State for Health wrote an article behind the paywall of a government-friendly newspaper in which he revealed the latest official advice to the nation, which superseded the advice of twenty-four hours before and was itself superseded twenty-four hours later. At the end of his article, he asked Britain to rekindle the ‘Blitz spirit’, our national myth of stiff-upper-lipped solidarity in the face of existential threat. Tory voters like to pretend they lived through the war. Now it looks a little less like pretence.
Comparisons with World War Two have also been made, in largely optimistic tones, from the left. The expansion of the state necessitated by fighting Hitler was harnessed to fight poverty and exploitation by the 1945 Labour government as it nationalised (or kept nationalised) swathes of the economy, expanded the welfare system and council housing and established the National Health Service. The virus seems to necessitate similar expansion, and thus to present an opportunity to push leftist demands. Certainly socialism seems more possible now than it did three months ago when we lost the general election, or one month ago when it became clear that the left was losing its grip on the Labour leadership. Manifesto policies that were ridiculed – free broadband, for instance – now seem common sense. Those that McDonnell and Corbyn only saw fit to ‘float’, such as universal basic income, could conceivably be introduced by centrist and right-of-centre governments across the world. In a further parallel with World War Two: a rival economic system, in this case China’s rather than the Soviet Union’s, seems to be more adept at dealing with the problem than ours. Perhaps, as with Stalin, the full human cost of this ‘dealing’ remains to be seen. Nevertheless, systemic alternatives no longer seem mere utopias or frauds. In a time of retreat following the trauma of December – and as crass as it seems to say it – the virus promises hope to the left.
But this is not World War Two. History repeats itself (even if always as tragedy) only imprecisely. In many ways the coronavirus is the opposite of war. For the most grievous actions of humanity, substitute inaction. It could still be that mistakes made – including those that have already been made – by authorities across the world increase the death toll by millions. But there is an intuitive moral difference between Auschwitz, Dresden and Hiroshima and the failure to introduce social distancing a week earlier. For a living, breathing enemy substitute a microscopic pathogen that nobody knows whether to count as ‘alive’ or not. Being shot at or bombed by enemy combatants differs from catching an illness, not least because we are most likely to catch it, not from people we hate but from people we love, not from foreigners but from those we share our homes with. Not, of course, that this has prevented xenophobic responses to the virus, from Trump’s speeches to street violence in the UK. The prospect of further empowerment of immigration officers, and of the closure of borders, reeks of it – and endangers some of the most vulnerable.
The war (for Britain at least) had a rather different economic feel as well. The war meant a surge in aggregate demand, as the ‘Hungry Thirties’ gave way to full employment in ‘the war effort’ – necessitating, famously, an expansion of female participation in the workforce. It was all hands on deck. The virus, in contrast, means fewer hands on deck. With workplaces being possible breeding grounds for infection, we want most people to be working less, not more. People staying in more means less demand in much of the service sector that has come to dominate our economy in the way that heavy industry did in the wartime era. There will be a growth in demand for some things: home deliveries, healthcare, ventilators… But for most of us, the best thing to do for this war effort is to produce and consume less – at least, in this phase of the crisis, before the able-bodied are drafted into the emergency services or the like. This means a huge negative shock to demand, and the primary economic problem is not finding more workers, but providing for the workers who are no longer needed.
Finally, for camaraderie substitute social distancing. As much as the Blitz spirit is a myth, the war did have some pro-social effects. Serving alongside each other in the armed forces brought different groups closer together. Consider also the relative sameness of condition in everyone living from ration books, relying on the same news broadcasts, running from the same bombs. Evacuations and deployments brought people into contact with others from different parts of the country. The virus seems in many ways to create the opposite. The best thing you can do for others is to cut yourself off from them. In Leo Varadkar’s words, ‘We are asking people to come together as a nation by staying apart from each other.’ We will all spend more time by ourselves, in our own houses (in all their obscene diversity of condition). We will not leave our localities or meet new people. Many of us will spend much of our time consuming online entertainment and news tailored specifically for us, drawing us further from a shared public sphere. Coronavirus shrinks the social.
Do these differences from the wartime experience leave leftists with more or less hope for ‘a good crisis’? One striking thing at this early stage is how many of the proposed solutions or mitigations to the epidemic are socialist in nature. This ranges from the opening up of National Trust land and Kew Gardens, to the grassroots solidaristic ‘mutual aid’ initiatives, to the requisitioning of empty properties for the homeless, to the involvement of trade unions in sector-level planning, to the obvious need to end the dependency of people for their incomes on work (ranging from higher sick pay to full-blown UBI), to the increasing common sense position that the market must be subordinated to the public interest. Why is this? Could it be that a virus, because of its very contagiousness, renders clearer than ever the core socialist moral that the welfare of each individual depends on the welfare of all others?
Imagine we had won in December and Corbyn were Prime Minister today. Not only would we be getting a response more likely to save lives, we would be looking at the best chance of getting his socialist programme implemented. In normal circumstances, the very sensible people of the Labour right would be obstructing and extracting concessions from the more radical parts of the manifesto on which they were just elected. (Never mind the continuous fog of Brexit we would be contending with!) In these abnormal times, however, radical measures could easily – and truthfully – be presented as necessary, and national unity behind the elected government the truly sensible course. Afterwards, the crisis having revealed the core socialist moral, and the response having established the mechanisms to deliver more generous welfare, workers’ rights, expropriations, economic planning and the like, a left-led Labour government would be ideally positioned to make its policies permanent.
We are not, however, in this situation, but a much graver one. The crisis may still prove to the nation (and the world) the necessity of more socialist policy, but out of power it is not clear that we are equipped to actualise it. The shrinking of the social that the epidemic makes necessary may in fact impede socialist organisation. Tony Benn famously pronounced it ‘social-ism’, emphasising the need for people to come together, socially, as a precondition for successful implementation of socialist policies. Will we emerge from eighteen months of being cocooned and watching YouTube alone, as political animals, with strong social bonds to others in our communities? Or will we be even more atomised and un-organisable than neoliberalism has left us?
Moreover, in the absence of the progressive measures we need to fight the virus (and given the general tendency of the British state and in particular this government) we are likely to see a significant increase in repression. If the government is not prepared to properly financially incentivise poor people to stay at home, it will have to enforce social distancing by force and deterrent. The bill going through Parliament this week gives the government power to ban any gatherings, and police and immigration officers power to detain individuals with coughs. Elections have been cancelled. However ‘necessary’ they are, we should be wary about how these powers could be abused. We should also anticipate more authoritarian measures as the crisis progresses: troops on the streets, increased surveillance, the suspension of human rights such as those to fair trials, family life and assembly. Like our imagined Prime Minister Corbyn, Prime Minister Johnson might have the inclination and political cover to retain these things after the crisis. This would not leave the left in a better position – far from it. (Even if we find our way into government: the Attlee government similarly inherited a highly militarised imperial state, and let’s not forget that as well as the NHS it oversaw the nuclear bomb, National Service and colonial warmongering.)
So what should the left’s strategy be? At the moment the government has no grip on the situation, is losing public confidence and desperately trying to catch up with the virus. In these circumstances, the optimum strategy seems to be that laid out in this statement from Momentum’s National Coordinating Group, and followed to a large extent by both Corbyn and Rebecca Long-Bailey. It is to make demands on the government (no evictions, no bills, no benefit sanctions, full sick pay for all) whilst pointing out the failures of the system that left it so unprepared for the virus, and supporting grassroots mutual aid initiatives.
If the government somehow manages to get more of a grip, it might become worth working with. That is not to say we should expect any Conservative government to get everything right. But the coordinating and coercive power of the state is uniquely able to respond to a crisis like this, and so, at some point working with an imperfect government becomes the best possible strategy. (Another World War Two analogy might be the change or premiership from Chamberlain to Churchill, and Labour’s entry into the national coalition government.) Then, a different problem is presented, of retaining a distinctively socialist critique of the crisis, distinguishing welcome state expansion from repression, and managing the interaction between bottom-up and top-down aid initiatives. Now is not the time to offer some solution to this problem, which will depend on exactly what occurs at the top of government in a fast-moving situation – but obviously a dose of pragmatism will be in order.
As well as looking back to the war, coronavirus forces us to look forwards. It is both a microcosm of, and a warm-up for, the point where the climate crisis really starts to bite in the global North. As with climate change, a lack of early intervention by the authorities – be it due to denialism, Micawberism, class interests or sheer lack of imagination – exacerbates the crisis. This in turn leads to a need for huge state intervention down the line, some welcome and some repressive, as we will see when climate change disrupts our food supplies and drives millions of migrants northwards. If the government opts for draconian enforcement against this epidemic (lockdown, closed borders, militarisation and so on), these will be the go-to strategies for the coming climate crises, a kind of dress rehearsal for eco-fascism. In contrast, the demands Labour is making for a left response to coronavirus: support workers as they transition away from their work, reduce the burden of debts and rents, use the muscle of the state not to lock people up but to push markets in the right direction, and expropriate unused property where necessary – look far more like a dress rehearsal for a Green New Deal.
So it is not only for the immediate humanitarian needs of today that we cannot afford to lose; it is also for tomorrow’s.