Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic at the beginning of 2020 and the implementation of measures designed to prevent its spread, there has been a small but vocal minority (over-represented in the right-wing media) who have been advocating defiance of these rules.
Most of the left, Red Flag included, have demanded since this public health crisis began that lockdown measures be more stringent, and have pointed out that the government and media’s push to end them, cheered by Keir Starmer and the rest of the Labour Party leadership, has been motivated by a wish to put profits before the lives of working-class people. They have demanded a Zero Covid strategy, as advanced by the Zero Covid campaign, which aims to eliminate transmission of the virus. However, the question remains: Why do a minority of people continue to defy the limited public safety measures put in place? And what should the left’s response be to this?
First, it should be noted that we are, broadly speaking, discussing two different categories of people. The first, much larger, more diverse minority are simply members of the public who, for various, sometimes indiscernible reasons, fail to comply with the public safety measures. These can range from severe to minor breaches, undertaken in a variety of circumstances. Some people are simply unable to comply with rules such as social isolation for fear of losing their jobs or much needed income. Putting aside these, and occasional or accidental failure to comply with all the rules all the time, it is probably fair to say there is a minority of people who consciously defy the rules and are sceptical of the necessity of following them.
The second smaller minority are those who have been convinced by the conspiracy theories that have mushroomed since the outbreak and believe that the pandemic is either a complete hoax or exaggerated for shadowy motives to do with population control. This minority should obviously be treated with suspicion, and the underlying ideology dismissed completely. These ideas have been taken up by the far right and their fellow travellers in the right populist media.
There is, however, a social basis for both these phenomena, which have their roots in the nature of the capitalist system and how it is experienced by people. Working-class people’s lives are, from day one, governed by an array of oppressive and arbitrary rules and processes, over which they have no control and that have seemingly little logic to them. At school, at work, when dealing with government services and private companies, the DWP or the Council; workers are subjected to a high-handed and capricious system which drills into them that they are powerless, that they have no control over their own lives. The Rules seemingly come from nowhere or from vague, shadowy figures above them, over whom they have no influence and who cannot be held to account. Working-class people spend their entire lives, both consciously and unconsciously, rebelling against the Rules – finding ways at work to slack off or cut corners, pushing back against the authority of the boss, fiddling overtime, finding ways to earn money without the DWP finding out. Working out tricks to get around pointless and annoying Rules is, in many ways, an artform which, even unconsciously, expresses the worker’s antagonism with the capitalist system which is, in the final analysis, the authoritarianism of capital over them.
Of course, it should be made clear that public health restrictions currently in place are necessary, and the left and trade unions are quite rightly demanding more to preserve working-class people’s lives. Defying them does put those lives in at risk. However, it should also be noted that the way they are announced and enforced in the current system is that of the top-down, managerial style that workers are always subjected to. They are told that it is for their own good, but the selective application of the Rules is clearly designed to preserve the rich and penalise the poor. The ever-changing, illogical nature of the Rules makes them appear capricious and arbitrary. People are told that they need to go to work, but cannot visit friends or family. The ever-changing tier system appears to have little logic to it, pitted different parts of the country against each other, and was particularly harsh on the poorer areas, which also received less money and support. High-profile examples of politicians flouting the Rules with impunity, such as the infamous example of Dominic Cummings going on holiday to Durham, while ordinary people were forced to comply, highlighted the Rules’ selective application. Rules enforced in this manner breed confusion, scepticism and, in some cases, defiance, whatever their validity.
Furthermore, capitalism as a system breeds and encourages an individualistic outlook, where the interests of the individual are counter to those of society as a whole. Both through the direct propaganda of the media and education, but also, more perniciously, by the lived reality of many workers’ lives. We can be led to believe that our interests are best served by selfish acts and that we are in direct competition with one another. Life under capitalism can be extremely harsh on those who fail to look after themselves, and focussing time on looking out for others can seem like a waste. This combined with the arbitrary nature of authority can lead to feelings of isolation from, and even contempt for, other people. This attitude is often more prevalent amongst small proprietors and businesspeople, the petty bourgeoisie and small capitalists, for whom a narcissistic individualism and petty suspicion of authority is a natural state, but the absence of a class analysis that recognises a shared, collective interest can cause many workers to be pulled by such an outlook too.
Conspiracy theories have gained greater purchase within the working-class in recent years precisely because the notion of a shadowy elite controlling society actually fits with working-class people’s experience of the world. Their lives have progressively got worse for no discernible reason, because of vagaries of the system that are never explained or acknowledged. They are fully aware of how little control they have over their own lives and are understandably sceptical of the motives of authority. Marxists argue that in reality this is the result of the dominance of capital over society, not because of a secret cabal pulling strings; but the simple truth of this will not be enough to convince people, for whom the fantasy of conspiracy theories can explain the reality of their own powerlessness.
Both casual scepticism or defiance of public health measures and the more ugly and illogical conspiratorialism witnessed in response to them therefore have their roots in the alienation that working-class people experience in capitalist society. It is therefore not enough either to patiently explain the necessity of the Rules, or to brow-beat people into compliance. Their seemingly illogical behaviour has a material basis in how they experience reality. It is, unfortunately, not enough to hold up a Marxist, class-based analysis of the world in comparison to conspiracy theories, for the same reason. To convince people to do what is right for the collective interest they need to feel they are a part of that collective, that they share those interests and have some control over how to advance them. This requires more than an abstract comparison between competing views of the world or what behaviours are “right”, but instead the construction of real connections of solidarity within the working-class. Only when it is proven in practice that collective working-class action can improve people’s lives can they be convinced that their own individual actions have an effect, positive or negative, on those around them. The overwhelming support for and compliance with the public health measures, and the spontaneous participation of many in collective acts of self-help this year, prove that the spirit of solidarity amongst working-class people is in many cases still present. The actions of education workers in refusing to participate in the dangerous reopening of schools has doubtlessly saved lives. It is examples such as these that need to be built upon and pushed even further.
This pandemic has proven that the capitalist system cannot be trusted to deal with public health crises of this kind, not only because those in power will always put profit before working-class people, but because even when they attempt (or are forced to attempt) to implement public safety measures, they will do so in a manner which deepens people’s feelings of isolation and alienation, not overcome them. It is for this reason that Red Flag argues for working-class organisations to take control of public health measures in response to the pandemic. Not just because that would be ideal, but because it is necessary. Rules created and enforced not by a shadowy Other for indiscernible and arbitrary reasons, but by workers themselves in their own communities and workplaces, for their own reasons, are the only way to ensure the participation of all.
Fifth International issue 20
The summer issue of our theoretical journal.