The World Turned Upside Down
‘The World Turned Upside Down’; English Political Ballad, c.1646. The first verse is as follows:
When the Home Secretary, Priti Patel unveiled the British Government’s new points based immigration scheme only in February, she promised to “end the reliance on low-skilled labour coming into the country”. The new system will come into force in January, 2021; the fruits of Brexit. The Government’s elaborate points system will not accept immigration for jobs with salaries under £20,480, while a £25,600 threshold sets the bar which most applicants without a PhD or who don’t work in specified occupations experiencing labour shortages, must clear.
In the House of Commons, the challenge to all this came unexpectedly on 23rd March from the Conservative MP Steve Double, who had obviously been brought to realise that the so-called low-skilled, disparaged immigrants affected by the consequences of the new system, were actually now absolutely crucial to the country. Unexpected, only until we had three Budgets in nine days, and facing the prospect of imminent lockdown, Double’s challenge perhaps was now energised by the realisation of the chilling real consequences for the whole of British life presented by the immigration rules, and was presumably exercised to speak up through the sudden impact of recent events: a pandemic that we should see not so much as a unique and exceptional, once-in-a-lifetime crisis but as a shocking and sudden, cataclysmic event that has torn away the mask of tattered illusions sustained by neo-liberal individualism; an ideology that asserts there is no society or community, merely a state of nature that only laissez-faire capitalism can master and control.
The Government’s response to Steve Double’s question was elicited from the very same Get It Done, Brexiteer Home Secretary Priti Patel, who issued the aggressive, no-nonsense, anti-immigration rules in the first place, and who now undertook a majestic swerve-on-a-sixpence pirouette, a Damascene conversion to the new reality, conducted so rapidly Planck Time couldn’t measure it; conveniently obliging the new conventional wisdom as to the manner born, with this jaw-dropper: “We’ve never said people at lower skill levels are unimportant, and as we know right now through this crisis everybody is making a tremendous contribution and effort to keep all services functioning and running. While at the same time ensuring care and compassion for workers and service provision that is essential right now. We will absolutely through the points-based immigration system, as I have already committed to, keep all aspects of that under review but the important thing with the points-based system is that we will ensure that points are tradable based on the skills and the labour market need that is required across particular sectors” (Reported by ‘The Independent’, 23rd March). Given the track record of Mz Patel so far, I wouldn’t hold out much hope that the careful words that she inserted here, “that is essential right now”, offers much of a guarantee that such workers will continue to be considered “important”, and not prove, let me search for the appropriate neo-liberal term, ‘tradable commodities’, as soon as the Home Secretary thinks the Government is, let us say, ‘out of the woods’ on the pandemic.
Unfortunately, the evidence of history is at variance with the official line. Faced with great events, of crises that chill every heart, that require rather more of leadership than the mundane, narrow ‘certainties’ of an economic world smoothed out of all inconvenient scepticism by the inertia and fatalism of a population beaten-down by austerity, and that can never win; the legacy of forty years of boom and bust, and of the spirit of community being simultaneously taken for granted, spurned or neglected while paying the full, bitter price for both.
When the ‘chips are down’, when backs are to the wall and real fortitude and leadership is required; with remarkable consistency, neo-liberalism’s answer is invariably the same: pass the buck fast – to the state, which will have to fix it, and always somehow, by ingenuity or plain fudge, or at terrible cost fixes something. The State, the butt of all the lofty, knowing neo-liberal jokes, the institution that cannot do anything well, must now, as always, do everything. Whether in times of war, when the survival of the state itself may be in jeopardy, or a major financial crash catches business and banking in hapless disarray (typically the result of neo-liberal hubris), or the shock of a pandemic threatens the nation’s people; it is the state that is expected to pick up the ruins neo-liberalism in its now routine, casual and hasty panic, throws up its hands, and walks out leaving the mess behind, and with its fellow-traveller, rentierism, it steals away silent into the night; to wait, under some rock for the moment to return in triumph, to bring the promise of bread, circuses and of course, as proof of its prudent and ever vigilant wisdom in a crisis, more Austerity.
In these great crises people look to communities to ensure their and their family’s survival, because day-in, day-out, consciously or unconsciously, they live in and through community; and in every case, when the matter is grave – they look to the state for the solution, because that is the only place they will find a solution for the community on which they depend, and for themselves. The State is the solution of last resort, for everyone.
The degree to which Priti Patel’s “tremendous contribution” is valued in Britain after the last general election is precisely what is at stake. We already have a new standard of what is an “essential” service, an essential business, what people actually rely on; and in turn an essential worker. The following list is a rough summary of the Guidance provided by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (March, 2020), which provides the exceptions to the closures affecting non-essential businesses; in effect they list what is essential for us all. Unsurprisingly we will find few PhD economists in the list, Hedge Fund Managers or find that similar skills are essential to the provision of these vital services to the general public in their daily lives: “Food delivery and takeaway. Cafés or canteens at hospitals, care homes or schools; prison and military canteens; services providing food or drink to the homeless. Supermarkets and other food shops, health shops, pharmacies including non- dispensing pharmacies, petrol stations, bicycle shops, home and hardware shops, laundrettes and dry cleaners, garages, car rentals, pet shops, corner shops, newsagents, post offices, and banks. Key workers can continue to stay in hotels or similar where required. Facilities may remain open for the purpose of hosting essential voluntary or public services, such as food banks or homeless services. Funerals following the social distancing guidance; places of worship should remain open for solitary prayer. Live streaming of a service without audience would be permissible”.
Key workers and essential business are therefore quite striking to observe, for their very ordinariness; and the extraordinary nature of the services they provide for the well-being of everyone, and the skill and care of the people who provide them. Allow me to make one thing clear; what I am directing your eye to is what the organs of a neo-liberal Government actually consider is ‘essential’ to the people they govern. I am not making a point about what should be considered ‘essential’ in this pandemic. In fact I find the Guidelines list both rather long and a little odd, when the first requirement we are all told is self-isolation; in a strategy that rigorous statistical epidemiologists appear to call ‘suppression’ and implies complete lockdown: but that would require a different article, an article I do not consider myself best placed to write. But this article is about value, and not prices: goodwill and not rents. In my more pessimistic moments, before this Pandemic interrupted everything, I had begun to wonder just how long it would take the Hedge Funds, and their clever lawyers to turn their beady eyes on the prospect of asserting Intellectual Property rights over the very air we breathe; after all, they have cornered everything else that can make a profit already, or rather more accurately, from which they can extract a rent: because modern capitalism has moved on from the really difficult problem of creating profit, to the easier task of extracting rent, and carrying it off out of inconvenient jurisdictions.
We have time to think of all this while we are living in self-isolation. Speaking solely for myself, I do not find it oppressive, because I am used to reading, studying, researching, and in the age of the internet I can source a great deal of knowledge directly from my home and my laptop. Nevertheless, I am also brought to a halt because I discover that primary sources, that I was planning to visit in archives or libraries over the summer will now be out of my reach for who knows how long. More time for thinking and reflection, and looking on the upside, the best of it (such as it is!) is probably unconscious. “I could be bounded by a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space” (Hamlet, Act II, Scene II). Ah, returning to the matter in hand, this thought is the essence of neo-liberal individualist freedom, although without announcing the clandestine sleight of hand their ideology of greed requires, the neo-liberals long ago re-defined the “nutshell” as encompassing the whole world; including my space and yours. It is now called ‘surveillance capitalism’.
Of course we are not just individuals, free-floating ‘atoms in the void’; locked down in self-isolation we rely even more on the community ‘out there’ to encompass and embrace us (metaphorically of course – preserving a two metre gap!), just to survive; but that simple awareness we have through self-isolation is a matter of consciousness of the reality of community, which was there all along; noticed and acknowledged by us, or not. The more technically advanced our civilisation, the more we divide labour, the more dependent on community we become. Hobbes was wrong in fantasising a ‘state of nature’, an abstraction that did not exist; Montesquieu’s terse observation presented the unchallengeable riposte to Hobbes, known from time immemorial: “Man is born in society, and there he remains”. In fact this elegant, laconic and powerful translation of the original French was provided by the philosopher of society, Adam Ferguson (the translation boiled down to its essence, of a much longer excerpt from Montesquieu’s ‘Lettres Persannes’, 1721; Lettre xciv).