Two weeks ago an essay appeared on the Lockdown Sceptics site by one Alexis Fitzgerald. Headed, The Left-Wing Case Against Lockdown, it began thus:
I consider myself to be left-wing on virtually every political topic: I am a socially-liberal social democrat who believes in a strong social safety net, high-quality public healthcare for all, robust environmental protections (including shifting to renewable energy sources immediately and protecting half of the globe for nature), restorative justice, legal abortion and reducing inequality and corporate influence over politics. I despise Donald Trump and believe Brexit was a huge mistake. I am firstly presenting my political biases in order to dispel the caricature that has emerged of lockdown sceptics as being all right-wing, Trumpian Brexiteers. I think this labelling has been very unfortunate and misguided, as I too believe that the lockdown policy in response to Covid-19 has been an utter and complete disaster, and that most of the left have gotten this issue completely wrong. I will argue that the position of the lockdown sceptic really should be a more naturally left-wing cause to adopt, and those on the left should not be distracted by the reflexive partisan politics and virtue signalling that has taken over so much of the debate around lockdowns.
The left should be interested in protecting working class and marginalised people and shielding them from economic hardship and exploitation, first and foremost. However, by many reasonable projections, these lockdown policies are delivering us into the worst economic depression in world history, and this will certainly negatively affect working class and marginalised people more than anyone else. Small businesses are being swallowed up by the thousands by large multinational corporations like Amazon …
Though agnostic on CV-19 severity and on lockdown as a principle (not to be confused with its delayed and clownish implementation in UK and USA) I see Fitzgerald’s essay as riddled with flawed reasoning. His definition of ‘Left’ would comfortably accommodate Tony Blair and the Clintons while the remark about Amazon’s windfall confuses cause with catalyst. Other flaws include a reference to an “invented” two metre rule on social distancing – whatever we think of lockdown, two metres was not plucked from thin air – but that’s by the by.
I showed the essay to bevin, a BTL commenter whose knowledge, articulacy and breadth of perspective have long impressed me. Here in full, edited only to break up long paragraphs, on the ground that online readers don’t like ’em, is bevin’s response to Mr Fitzgerald.
Thank you for sending Mr Fitzgerald’s essay.
I’m unsure what left wing means in this context. The entire capitalist system is in crisis – social, economic and political, ideological – and this left winger is concerned that capitalism may not be restored quick enough.
He appears to believe that the priority in these times ought to be to preserve the economy, whereas I see that economy as being the problem. Unless it is replaced there are going to be successive pandemics with increasingly horrific consequences. What we are seeing develop around us, and it has barely begun, are the consequences of an economy in which the production and sale of commodities is all important and the satisfaction of the material needs of the masses at best incidental.
I recently read the Frank Snowden book on Epidemics in history. The chapter on ebola is particularly instructive. The ground for the disease, which came very close to developing into a pandemic itself, was the dispossession of the subsistence peasantry from their common lands. This is, as you know, a process taking place around the world, and involves massive clear cut forestry campaigns, leading to short term lumber booms as the ancient trees are sold off, and, on the lands in which the people lived, the foundation of plantations. A few centuries ago these were sugar plantations, then there were cotton plantations, rubber plantations and currently it is Palm Oil that takes the (no pun intended) first prize.
But the basic result remains what it was when the villages of England were being depopulated and the pauperised victims of enclosure and commodity production were being driven into the cities in which they died, for the most part very quickly, after having been stripped of every quality (from labour power to sexual potency) and residue of wealth by the bourgeoisie.
We tend to look back on that age through the pages of the Hammonds or EP Thompson’s eloquent evocations of the past. But in most of the world that past is today and tomorrow: villagers in Honduras being pushed aside for mines (and palm oil plantations) Filipinos or Peruvians evicted from the lands on which they have lived for generations suddenly ‘reclaimed’ by land’owners’ who replace subsistence farming with asparagus or cut flower production for American or European luxury trades.
(When this sort of economy closes down, far from the local poor suffering they actually stand to make gains – the flowers (there being no air freight expresses) no longer being wanted in Belgium, the gardens can be used again to produce vegetables, fruits and grain crops for local consumption. Without the constant demand, now stalled by the ‘lockdown’, for Palm Oil the forest begins to reclaim its land, the aquifers begin to recover, the pools of standing water, infested by mosquitoes, dry up. The slums empty somewhat as villagers return to the land.)
It will be argued that I am missing the importance of the employment that these plantations provide – the seasonal labour to harvest, the young men needed to guard the boundaries of the plantations against the depredations of its former owners, the girls growing fat in the Senor’s harem, the odd tractor driver, mechanics and Bayer/Monsanto chemical dispensers. All of which are unlikely to amount to a tenth of the number of those who used to live off the lands now devoted to monocultures, certain, within a few decades, to collapse of their own effects upon fertility, drainage patters, climate etc.
Desertification is as much an inevitable consequence of the economy as pandemics are a function of globalised trade, rapidly growing slums (cf Mike Davis Planet of the Slums) and a population becoming poorer and poorer, worse nourished, worse housed, worse fed in conditions of rapidly deteriorating hygiene and public health.
It will be argued that such observations are all very well but that in the here and now it is a matter of urgency to get ‘our economy’ working again or people will starve – it is good of Mr Fitzgerald to care – but I would argue that what the virus shows us is that ‘the economy’ does not work, except for the few. And that the many have no more interest in rescuing it than the cargo on a slave ship has in re-rigging the masts after a hurricane.
Far from wanting to get back to work I am in favour of stopping work entirely until the economy is returned to those from whom it was taken in the first place. In the meantime there is no excuse, and never was, for famine and society must be ready to take all measures necessary to preserve lives, to feed, clothe and house everyone and to expand the medical facilities needed to cope with the ballooning demand for them.
It is idle to argue, as does Mr Fitzgerald, that concentrating resources on treating virus sufferers and saving lives comes at the cost of allowing others – chemo patients, stroke and heart attack victims – to be neglected. There is no reason why the measures taken in the recent past forty years to cut available medical services should not be immediately reversed, firstly for this pandemic and then for future purposes. I can think of no more marvellous scene than that of a staff room in a hospital full of highly trained and motivated people with nothing to do – to every health minister we have had in memory this fabulous concept would appear to be obscene. Wards full of unused beds, cafeterias full of jolly nurses reading books and waiting to be called to work. Doctors playing chess or reading journals because there are no patients …
Must we face the near probability of a devastating second wave of infections to restore a semblance of ‘normality’ to an economy in which most of the work actually being performed is arbitrage of one sort or another between consumers, being consumed by debt and a cheap labour pool actually melting away as chemicals, machines and computers replace human labour?
The reality of the current global situation is that, having been dispossessed of their inheritance long before birth, most of the seven billion people on this planet are – in terms of the ruling class and its economy – redundant. The great cause of the sudden increase in population lies not on positive steps taken by society – public health, sewerage, water purification etc – but in the disenfranchisement of which dispossession is an important part.
With the breaking up of communities and the displacement of their members, humanity loses control over its destiny and itself. Humanity is reduced to its individual constituents, in their turn reduced to basic appetites and instincts, one of strongest of which is the instinct to reproduce. Away from our environment and separated from our communities we become, like the virus itself, intent on reproduction before our disappearance back into the earth.
Malthus was not witnessing a natural process, had he been doing so the population of Britain would have been considerably greater (by several orders of magnitude) than it was when he wrote. He was observing a side effect of the Agricultural Revolution and industrialisation in Britain – a paradoxical process whereby life expectancy fell and the population increased enormously.
But I digress. In the final analysis what we are facing is a crisis in the system. A crisis that it cannot resolve without – as the herd immunity episodes show – being ruthless with the weak. And to do this the system has to mobilise the slightly less weak to do the weak in. Mr Fitzgerald is one of the slightly less weak arguing the case to sacrifice the even weaker. Its the old Jay Gould calculation – ‘hiring one half of the working class to shoot at the other half’ – renewed.
The breaking point here is not between ‘left’ and ‘right’ but between those who want to keep capitalism alive and those ready to seize the chance to get rid of it. For those like Mr Fitzgerald and most of his commenters, who believe it is a matter of urgent necessity to get the capitalist system back to work, the jobs revved up again, the consumer demand bubbling, the Academy doing its thing, the motorways crammed with traffic, the sea lanes bursting with imported widget parts, the stock exchanges humming, I have bad news: those days are over.
The ‘economy’ might have Covid 19 on its death certificate but the autopsy will show that at the time of death it was suffering from several fatal diseases, financial and social. It would not have lasted many more months. It was already being given massive transfusions of debt by generations of workers yet to be born – the game was pretty well up.
The good news is that for most of the world the demise of this system will be no loss, in fact it will put them in a position to make their lives and the lives of their fellows much longer and better than they were doomed to be under the rule of Wall St, the City and its police forces.
But there is bad news for Fitzgerald and his generation: the finger of fate has selected them to make a revolution. Or not. And that is likely to be, at least in the short term, an uncomfortable change. Nobody likes to be homeless. Nobody likes to be conscripted, by anything including historical necessity. And nobody likes to lose the comforts of the few certainties with which we are born, the chance to duplicate, as it were in spades, for ourselves, the life trajectories that those who preceded us followed: to live the comfortable dream of modest prosperity, family love and affection, friendly neighbours and occasional essaying tastes of different worlds.
On the other hand, if they are enrolled in the cause of replacing capitalism with a community based on solidarity (love), equality and justice (at last), their names will live forever. And if they don’t, the present is not an alternative. Capitalism if it does not die will kill us all. And not just us either, but the bees and the rabbits and the trees and the oceans, the very elements of life.
On the other hand, I could be wrong and this system, cobbled back together, might limp into the future past the mid century mark, a gated city under siege by nature and surrounded by the angry billions that it has condemned to death. If the ‘left’ means anything it means that it chooses the side of those most in need of assistance, the weak, vulnerable, disfranchised-the outsiders beyond the gates.
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