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 (19)

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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.

      2. Kevin Hattie says:

        One of the issues of redistributing wealth via taxation in a system such as ours is that it requires a willing government and there are serious obstacles to getting such a government into power. The minute someone comes along and suggests a radical new approach, the corporate media quickly denounce them as “Marxists” or “Stalinists”. Democracy is very hard to sustain in a society with gross inequality, as money will always influence things. Those with the wealth have much more power than those without, even if the latter have ‘the numbers’ on their side. That’s why the interests of the working class are often poorly represented in parliaments. Especially when many of the people in the working class identify with the interests of the ruling class, as the new ‘blue wall’ just south of the border seems to suggest.

    3. Kevin Hattie says:

      I agree that it is important to define our terms clearly in political discussions, especially since the various propaganda systems that exist have worked tirelessly to distort language. This is clear whenever the word ‘Socialism’ is used in certain quarters. The immediate conjuring up of regimes in the ex-Soviet Union, Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea etc by those who defend the current model is an attempt to set the meaning for a word that would otherwise have significant moral appeal for large parts of any population. With regards to Capitalism, I’ve always taken it to mean an economic arrangement centred around private property and markets, where capital is invested with the aim of returning a profit. There’s scope for variation, especially regarding the role of the State, but I believe that is the essence of Capitalism.

      Is it “in us”? I think that depends on what you mean. I reckon most people would agree that we internalise a lot of values and norms from our environment, and so living in a society with the values and norms of a market based system is bound to impact us. I don’t think Capitalism is a product of human nature if that’s what you mean. The early writings of Marx impressed me on this point. Because of our need to mix our labour with the material world in order to survive, work (in a very general sense) is something that seems to be characteristic of all human beings (setting aside very young children and those who can’t work for any other reason). But unlike other animals, human beings go well beyond labouring to meet their basic needs. For example, art and cultural activity seems quite natural to our species. You could say that these activities are an inherent part of what it means to be human. But under Capitalism, with wage-labour, much of our activity is instrumentalised. In fact, we often come to despise our work, as can be clearly heard when someone describes work as ‘a necessary evil’. This leads into Marx’s theory of alienation. I am quite sympathetic to this element of Marx’s thought, so I would argue that Capitalism is not an expression of our nature, but rather works against our nature, to the degree that it turns our creative, intellectual and physical capacities to the service of a market system that only recognises the necessity of continual growth.

  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.)

  10. Kevin Hattie says:

    A very thought provoking article that references one of my favourite writers! I suppose this would be an appropriate article to leave my first ever comment on.

    I’m one of the “low-skilled” turned “key” workers. I work in the care sector. In ordinary times, I am lucky to receive hours. As a sessional worker, I await other full-time staff taking annual leave in the hope that extra hours become available. Due to the current situation, several members of staff in my service are either off sick or self-isolating, so it is something of a boom-time for me in terms of income and hours. It is unfortunate that it has come to this: relying on a pandemic to finally enjoy regular shifts. It has been very stressful away from work; living in a cautious paranoia in case I or anyone in my household is stricken with the illness and my chance to earn much needed money is pulled from under my feet.

    The reason the obvious solution of finding other work or moving to another service is currently unavailable to me is because of mental health issues. I don’t often speak about it, and this in itself creates serious problems, but I don’t feel as though I am able to move jobs due to quite severe social anxiety. I feel paralysed by it at times and the mere thought of a new place of work with all those unknown people strikes terror into my heart. This is of course something I am hoping to address, but it is easier said than done. I have already attended cognitive behavioural therapy at my local health centre and it was largely ineffective. So my current situation involves me trying to find a solution for my mental health issues before I can find a solution to my economic problems. But are the two unrelated?

    The reason I bring this up is because your final paragraph really speaks to me. I know a lot of people will be starting to miss the everyday activities that only a few weeks ago were part of their routines. My girlfriend and her mum both feel frustrated and upset by the gym closing. The lack of social contact with non-immediate family and friends is taking its toll on all of us, whether we have underlying mental health issues or not. For a sufferer of social anxiety like me, lock-down exacerbates the problem. The little social contact that I can tolerate is very important for keeping me confident enough to have a basic form of social life. I don’t know what it will feel like in a few months if the world is suddenly opened up again and I am asked to go out into it. But while lock-down is a new situation for everyone, I don’t feel entirely unfamiliar with the problems it raises. “The buzz of the gym, the chat on the bus, the joy of the pub” have long been parts of life that I have felt excluded from.

    I can’t trace my social anxiety to anything specific. I know that I have deteriorated in the past five years due to avoidance and a lack of practice in meeting new people. It’s a vicious cycle that is hard to get out of. Even though I can’t pinpoint the reason I developed the condition, I can say with a degree of certainty that our economic and social world don’t help in overcoming it. I am of the opinion that the social part of our lives is heavily shaped by the economic sphere. Our relationships with other people are affected by the attitudes we are asked to adopt as participants in a market economy. Add to this the detrimental effects on communities that globalisation and market forces have had. I hope that I am not accused of ‘snowflakiness’ when I say that our world has become needlessly cruel and hostile.

    Social anxiety did not turn my perfect life into what it is today. It simply added to the problems. Even when socialising and a degree of inclusiveness were features of my life, alienation permeated everything I did. I felt estranged from the world around me. The promise of access to a world of commodities through hard work didn’t spark anything in my heart. Relationships often felt instrumental. In many respects, this is why I found the writings of Albert Camus so appealing: just as Mersault, the anti-hero of The Outsider, drifted in the absurd, I, too, felt myself adrift. Hearing my work colleagues and family complain about their boredom during this period of lock-down has re-affirmed what I’ve always felt. Our homes are full of things that we’ve accumulated over the course of our lives, yet they do not provide an adequate substitute for the world outside. That very world is increasingly becoming more and more commodified.

    The experience of living with social anxiety has probably made this period of lock-down easier for me in the short-term. I’m used to staying indoors. But it has also accentuated the worst side-effects of our social and economic systems. The loneliness and isolation, the bruises to our self-esteem, the powerlessness we feel in the face of inhumane forces, the dis-location from our communities, the humiliation in our working lives: all of these things have been a constant in my own life over the past five years. Social anxiety simply adds another layer of helplessness to all of this.

    Thank you for your thought-provoking article. To end with another quote from Albert Camus:

    “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”

    1. Thanks very much Kevin.

      I love your end quote too.

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