Viral Time

I’ve got all the symptoms of a selfish narcissistic society based on accumulation and waste. You may find yourself coughing up poverty or suffering a fever-dream of insecurity and anxiety. Check yourself for shocking levels of inequality and persistent alienation.

Covid-19 is the disease but the ‘underlying heath condition’ is capitalism.

There’s nothing else to think about and nothing else to write about. There’s nothing more important that has happened or will happen in your lifetime.

The virus brings forth equal measures of hysteria, kindness, and brutal selfishness. Humanity is laid bare in all its glory, as social control mingles with doubt and fear, dread and anxiety fused with hefty doses of  boredom and ingenuity.

I have colour-coded my bookcases and cleaned out my cupboards, I have delved deep into the recesses of Netflix and my reading habits have become more and more niche and esoteric. It’s early days.

Each day I am, like everyone, trudging to the shops to try and find the essentials, every day, like everybody, I am worrying about how life can be viable without income and in social isolation. The reality is this was the lived experience for many people in our society for a very log time and nobody really cared. All of a sudden we really are “all in this together”. All of a sudden we are all characters in an Albert Camus novel (“I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing”  – Albert Camus, The Plague). All of a sudden everything is in perspective. Suddenly everything – like the newly clean Venice canals, is crystal clear.

The brutalism of our economics is exposed like never before. Examples are everywhere: the Skye-spiv who thought that he could make a killing from renting out cottages “Perfect for self-isolation”, who was oblivious to his own immorality; the decision by Britannia Hotels to immediately dismiss and evict staff at the former Hilton Coylumbridge Hotel, Aviemore; Tim Martin pontificating about his shit-chain of pubs; the rampant profiteering in shops and online or Peter Hitchens outdoing Brendan O’Neill for the title of Covidiot of the Week.

But alongside this seeming torrent of selfishness are a counterbalance of kindness. Stairwell WhatsApp groups and community Facebook groups are proliferating, city neighbourhoods forming mutual aid networks and artists donating their work for free. The capacity for this pandemic to unleash all sorts of goodwill and massive change is obvious, and the task of us all must be not just to survive and be healthy and to protect others, but to realise the opportunity for finally changing the system we live under.

Capitalism used to inoculate itself against changing, but finally it’s been found out.

Everything has changed and we’re all catching up every day.

Priti Patel’s “low skilled workers” are now “key workers” and “front line staff”. Funny that. Last week we were holding down two or three jobs each to run a household. Now those jobs and careers have gone and in their place are hungry and bored children. We’re all home-schoolers now. And that network of hidden care, that army of granny’s and grandads, gone too.

Welcome to the Precariat. Here’s the rules: there are no rules.

Feeling lost and as if society has abandoned you?

No shit. That’s the world that many people have been occupying for a long time.

We’re going to need all of the social solidarity and humanity we can muster. Whatever vestiges of goodness that haven’t been eradicated by the malignancy of Tory rule must be sustained and brought into service. Whatever ingenuity we can muster will be needed like never before, if, as we’re told “social distancing may be required for a year”.

We are going to learn a lot about being bored and being human and being together. Arguably the mental health challenges are as great as the physical health challenges.

And what seems like an incompetently slow government may be forced to act in so many areas they seem to be lagging. If they won’t create a Rent Freeze there’ll be a Rent Strike. If I have no income I can’t support the Rentier class to profit from pandemic.

Boris Johnson looks quietly terrified. His tousled and unkempt appearance is no longer an affectation. We are led in the most desperate of times by someone who has no experience other than extreme privilege, who has glided through life on a river of lies and deceit and now finds himself, somehow, incredibly in charge of Britain.

But everything is in a different context now. The run-of-the-mill attacks on Tories, any party politics now just seems stupid and empty. After all, everyone is out of their depth and keeping despair at bay with whatever comes to hand, gallows humour, strong liquour, frantic busyness or a combination of them all.

What’s becoming clear as the situation slowly lands in our consciousness is the scale and depth of change that’s being released.

All of the things we took for granted are in jeopardy: from access to healthcare and access to food; from access to money and access to each other.

When we re-build we must re-build from scratch and with fresh eyes. This doesn’t just apply to the basics of our social systems, but our very understanding of the world.

The virus is telling us so much about what we have failed to appreciate: the buzz of the gym, the chat on the bus, the joy of the pub. the comfort of social order, the gentle bromide of wall-to-wall sports media, the complete uselessness of most jobs and most work activities. The joy of cinema, of attending and gathering together; the need for the social; the importance of community, the comfort of a hug; the need for a kiss.  Its taught us of the need for inter-generational support and how separation is dysfunctional. And while we are now saved and evermore reliant on our devices, our Zoom and Skype and Facetime, it also reveals the emptiness and uselessness of them. Love, touch and warmth is being withdrawn.

“And he knew, also, what the old man was thinking as his tears flowed, and he, Rieux, thought it too: that a loveless world is a dead world, and always there comes an hour when one is weary of prisons, of one’s work, and of devotion to duty, and all one craves for is a loved face, the warmth and wonder of a loving heart.” Albert Camus, The Plague


Comments (15)

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  1. Daniel Raphael says:

    I hope you’re planning to write a book. Your articles show me you have one in one, when you choose to do it.
    Meantime, please keep these gems coming.

    1. Wullie says:

      Lovely in terrible times. Thanks.

      1. Jell says:

        Its a great comfort that we have people on the frontline producing such powerful material.

        By the way, ‘Watch out folks the Vultures are circling o’er the Borders’.
        We were shocked when Knight Frank, high end property outfit sent my wife unsolicited mail.
        LET US INTRODUCE YOU.” (Full stop in red)
        Bought for £120k 20 years ago, we do not consider ourselves their type of target. At 74 they assume my time is up (Data intell?), in their type of tax band F and she will want to downsize. Disgraceful!!

  2. Robbie says:

    Remember “Fck you Jack ,I’m alright” when mcmillains Tory gov was in ,No change

  3. Bill says:

    The teacher who told Tim Martin that he would not amount to much has been proved correct – as is evidenced with Martin’s recent babbling about his shit pubs and his execrable behaviour on Brexit. Let us hope that enough people will now see through him and others of his ilk in order that a better society will develop. Keep the articles coming Mike and remember there is always hope. We will only be remembered for what we have done you and Bella have done good

    Nae Pasaran

  4. Morag Williams says:

    Agreed Boris is looking rattled. Worried about the coroner reporting on multiple deaths?

    If Boris and other Prime Ministers can stop the planes now, they could have stopped them some time ago, before the Covid-19 virus was flown out of China on an aeroplane. Consequently, he may be negligent in not taking restrictive action sooner.

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      Not only is he LOOKING rattled, he IS rattled.

      He is a proven, persistent liar over several decades and, despite the Boris fan-club in the media, a huge tranche of the UK population know he is a liar. So, his message is received, at best, sceptically, by millions.

      He is not a good public speaker and the message does not come across as good oratory. He does not engage his listeners in the way of say, Mrs Thatcher, Edward Heath or even Theresa May or David Cameron (to use Tory examples), might have done. The first two actually believed in what they were trying to do and, the latter two could actually deliver a script as a speech (even when having a coughing fit.)

  5. Josef Ó Luain says:

    An excellent piece, Mike!

    I’m thinking about what took place last week at the Coylum Bridge Hotel. I’m thinking about the “clerical error” which put ordinary wage-earners into a state of complete helplessness. I’m also thinking, however, about the actions taken by the hotel’s manager. Objectively, it’s easy to argue that he had choices in the matter, that he could’ve refused to throw those blameless people into a state of destitution, so far away from the support of friends and family. The unpalatable fact is, though: he followed the orders of his employers and threw the waiters out of their accommodation and off of the company’s property.

    Motivated, most likely, by fear of the consequences of his refusal to follow orders (destitution, perhaps, for himself and his dependents), the man, as we know, complied, making himself just as culpable and as brutalized as any of his Britannia bosses. Historic parallels aren’t difficult to find, unfortunately.

    It may be no-bad-thing then that we can’t return to how things once were – to the age of the Balance-Sheet and the Bottom-Line, an age which has corrupted the many and diminished us all.

  6. SleepingDog says:

    Seriously, has nobody here played Plague Inc: Evolved (other pandemic-simulating games are also available)? Why would any reasonably-well-informed person be surprised by such recent events? There should be no need for cognitive lurching or panic or a loss of public engagement, essentially what Elaine Scarry argues in Thinking in an Emergency:
    “Government leaders sometimes argue that the need for swift national action means there is no time for the population to think, deliberate, or debate. But Scarry shows that clear thinking and rapid action are not in opposition.”

  7. Alastair McIntosh says:

    This is a brilliant succinct reflection. It is now, Mike, that the years of thought and practice that people like you have put into sustainability and bioregionalism (Fife Diet etc.) will release their insights in ways that folks might be more ready to hear. But I have just one query. Where you say:

    “Covid-19 is the disease but the ‘underlying heath condition’ is capitalism.”

    If I might play Pilate, “What is capitalism?”

    I ask in relation to material I myself am writing on this and climate change. Is “capitalism” entirely something we can and should objectify “out there” and of another order; or is it partly also “in here”, internalised in most of us in ways too ordinary for most of us to recognise, and yet we deplore its mass emergent properties?

    Can we in good conscience dissociate from “capitalism” or should we (as we do so) take a mirror to ourselves? What, then, is the nature of the beast? Pace Pilate. “What is [the] truth?”

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      Mr McIntosh, your question about ‘capitalism’ is a good one. I think that since Mrs Thatcher (and arguably, it started with the Callaghan Government) all UK Governments have accepted a particular model of the economy and this has been poured into us via the media and not just in the politics sections, but pervasively, in fashion, sport, film reviews, etc. The economic model is taken as a ‘law of nature’ or hegemonic, to use Gramscian terminology.

    2. Wul says:

      “What is capitalism?” and “is it in us?”

      Very good questions that I have wrestled with myself. I have a small business selling hand-built items. I trade and I need a market place to do that. Am I a “capitalist” ?

      I need capital to buy materials and to feed myself until a sale occurs. If I ever made enough money, I would bank it and hope to get interest on my “savings” as the bank lends my money to other people who don’t have enough capital and charges them a fee, giving me a cut. The interest would be unearned income. ” Usury” as it was once called. Is that where where capitalism starts to go bad? I don’t know. I would like to see both “capitalism” and “socialism” better defined, categorised and agreed upon.

      I tend to see “bad” capitalism as a situation whereby a person with enough money, is guaranteed to make more and suddenly the laws and customs of the land work entirely in their favour, to the impoverishment of their fellows.
      E.g. If I have enough spare cash to buy a house, I can rent it to you for ever and get a cut of your earnings, whilst my asset increases in value faster than the tenant’s wages.

      There must be an argument for laws which make it difficult for one person to accumulate a ridiculously large amount of capital. If only because we know that this is bad for everyone else. No one really “earns” a million quid a year. If they are smart or talented enough to be in that situation, their “reward” is that they get to contribute a large amount to infrastructure that benefits their neighbours. What better satisfaction and source of pride?

      I would like to see us develop a more mature relationship towards tax where we see it as a powerful force for improving all our lives.

      Interestingly, David Cameron’s Tory government briefly tried to “educate” us about tax by including a summary in all our P60s (end of year tax summary) that showed us how much money was spent (they didn’t actually say “wasted”, but that was the message) on “welfare”. They knew that, to many people, “welfare” meant the scrounging unemployed and other “wasters”. What they didn’t say was that only 1% of welfare was spent on the “unemployed” and 42% was spent on old age pensions. Interestingly, we spend £25bn/year (10%) on housing benefit, much of which goes into private landlords’ pockets.
      So, we give 10 times as much money to landlords as we do to the unemployed. That’s “capitalism” surely?

      1. Wul says:

        Actually, that £25bn/year is a staggering figure! It is about £600 to £1,000/year, per head, from every single UK taxpayer. We are ALL subsidising landlords.

  8. Elaine Fraser says:

    Read somewhere the Scottish Government intend to shelve plans to reform the Gender Recognition Act and introduce Self-ID.

    “This virus is telling us so much about what we failed to appreciate ..” ……( should read ‘some’ failed to appreciate ) not least the importance of sex disaggregated data .

    Everywhere women look “sex” replaced with “gender identity “- time to “get real” yet?

  9. James Scott says:

    Notwithstanding the near unanimity of support for the conclusions of the article expressed here to date, as always, the devil is in the detail:

    ” [Camus] said he would write, ‘I recognise only one duty, and that is to love’.

    But Camus didn’t tell us (at least not directly) WHAT LOVE IS, or how to understand our duty to it. ”

    (My EMPHASIS added.)

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