After the Sick Society
“If you’re in trouble or hurt or need – go to poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help – the only ones.” Ma Joad, The Grapes of Wrath
At the weekend I asked a pal in his mid-seventies when he could last recall global events of the current magnitude. The Cuban Missile Crisis, those few days when Armageddon seemed imminent in 1962, apparently had a similar flavour. “I was petrified I’d die without getting my end away,” was his main recollection.
Memories can be fickle, unless they are imprinted on the body. But what does it mean to actually live history, if not to experience your body on the line? We’ve contorted our public life to promote ignorance of this truth, but still it returns, like an eternal itch upon the body politic. Today, all we can see are seven billion inseparable bodies, each equally porous and vulnerable.
Despite strenuous efforts, since our grandparents struggled for the basics of dignity at work, shelter and healthcare, the politics of the worker’s body have never been fully erased. Of course, for people of colour, for the queer community, for the millions of refugees abroad in the world, and for those who face death in times of austerity at home, the struggle for these rights never stopped. But beyond the arc of such struggles: when you winnow it down, the people who are seldom sick or seldom vulnerable are a vanishingly slim group, who look strangely similar to the people we elevate to power.
The revolutions, we’re told, are over: and so to speak of the marginalised body, let alone the oppressed body, is viewed as absurd in our permissive society, the trivial domain of identity politics. But the basic arguments remain unaltered. When Dr King told a crowd of striking Memphis sanitation workers that ‘the world is all messed up, the nation is sick’ (in a speech imbued with a deep sense of his own, soon to be realised, mortality) he faced off against a worldview that sees biological luck as the only game in town. The healthy are supposed to thrive, the weak perish. As we are currently discovering, the idea of a broader collective “public” health, is incompatible with competition as an organising principle: our obsession with it already seems an expensive and absurd indulgence.
Despite the pressure to do otherwise, we could never simply unlearn the political questions that surround our bodies and what becomes of them. As the virus reminds us, mortality is knitted through human experience and the genius of its expression: in the African American spiritual and Shakespeare alike. It is the deepest tangled truth that we all share.
That is not to dismiss the remarkable ways we now live. You can weep with people thousands of miles away, or alight on the one human face that speaks with modesty for a multitude: all mediated through a golden thread of mass self-communication. This time it’s different however. This time, connection is weighted with a great common interdependency. The historic events on the news aren’t simply happening in real time on a screen – they are happening on your skin, in your breath: everywhere.
To an extent, privilege has always consisted of buying or conferring the right to transcend the body. Now, suddenly, no body on the planet can really be considered safe, sealed-off, and inviolable – “As if this flesh, which walls about our life/Were brass impregnable”.
In the intervening decades since the Kennedy’s and Khrushchev faced off over Cuba and almost condemned legions of Scottish teenagers to eternal virginity – we have built a vast global network based on ever expanding consumption. It was supposed to have ended history and ideology, while at the same time, promising ever more liberation from the constraints of the body itself. This would occur in the marketplace – a realm with the potential to transfigure, through exchange, all inadequacies, anxieties and mundane mortal weaknesses.
Miracles did happen. Living standards and life expectancy in much of Europe and North America increased beyond the dreams of previous generations. In this ever improving world of growth and technology, something else was proposed too: no longer would people be chained to the indignities of labour, forced to mix their muscle and sweat with the base stuff of the earth. Instead of a living wage for honest work, assets would be built up, assets that would outlive you, and continue to increase regardless.
The Covid-19 crisis will finally break the ideological compromise established at the end of the last century at a molecular level. That settlement, grounded in the neoliberal economics of the 1980s, with the liberal social concessions of the 1960s thrown in here and there – on its last legs for so long – is now a thing of the past.
Everything turned out to be so fragile: there was no resilience in the system after all. Quite literally – yesterday’s radical slogans have become necessary mainstream policy positions – massive state intervention, no-evictions, banking reform, debt amnesties. If property is the cornerstone of liberal politics, the bodies of the people are about to collide with it en-masse. How then, can we return to the status quo of a week ago? When will destitution be re-activated as a policy tool?
Conversely, some will be asking, when can this sickness end, so that we can start making people sick all over again?
As others have argued, chronic illnesses related to post-industrialism and over-consumption, played a role in elevating the most uncaring and irresponsible to the highest office. The messages have been clear for some time, we inhabit a society where many people have forgotten what it is to feel looked after – and the spiral of isolation this inevitably creates is as deadly as any virus. Globalisation’s facility for quarantining the economically excluded far away, out of sight and out of mind, has already destroyed most of the social state, and provided us with leaders defined by the fact they do not care. The Covid-19 crisis is the bitter fruit of that process.
There is only one, blindingly obvious, choice about the bigger sickness – bodily and planetary – that confronts all. We either transform our societies to be organised around the social reproduction of care (for each other and the planet) thereby accepting our fragility and impermanence, or become resigned to the fatality of mindless consumption and competition.
Capitalism operates on the supposition that it is otherwise, but we are good at looking after each other. As it collapses, some of the damaged will seek to cling on to the old system. But for most of us, the new ways will seem obvious – do not go to look for freedom in the marketplace – look for it in the care home, the hospital, the school: where heroic and innovative acts of nurture go on. These are, after all, the places where our lives begin and end.
Until a few weeks ago, the people we really depend upon – those who tend to the sick, provide food, watch over the vulnerable, or clean up after us – had steadily disappeared from politics. Such “unskilled” labour, if it involved touching someone’s hand, handling their refuse, or ministering to their wounds, was destined to become ever more invisible. Outsourced, zero-contracted, automated, soon to dissolve into the past, which, with all its offensive quirks and bad smells, so often begs to be forgotten.
The current crisis is something more than just a health check for a sick society. It has inverted the standard hierarchies we have come to navigate by, in a globalised, mediated, world. The invisible – the lowest paid, the hardest worked – the people who do all the things that we’d rather not think about, are now seen for what they always have been – the thin line of humanity that guards our basic individual dignity, saviours from a grasping barbarism.
We can live, and will live, without corporate lawyers, hedge-fund managers, fossil-fuel execs, consumer credit salespeople, and middle managers. All our hopes are now with carers, cleaners, shelf-stackers, nurses, drivers, paramedics: those that we pay the least and need the most. Once we understand as a generation that we cannot live without them – the new world that eventually emerges out of this crisis will be theirs for the taking.