2007 - 2020

Lifting Lockdown and the Veil of Ignorance

It is now a notorious truism that it is a lot easier to impose “lockdown” than to end it.  You don’t need to understand how society works in order to shut it down, you just have to shut it.  But it turns out that you cannot re-open it without considering in what order in which to do that…and that the order of opening implies an understanding, even a consensus about the ordering of the things that make a society work.

This potential re-ordering of what is important actually started with the lockdown itself.  The lockdown was never – of course not – anything like total. We have already made value judgements between the rate of infection and societal coherence. To give an obvious example, the Health Service was not shut down. The National Health Service underpins, it transpires, absolutely everything else.The protection of its workers, facilities and capabilities turns out to be a good to which all other goods must be sacrificed.

(Not that this is surprising, necessarily, but the revelation that hospital porters and cleaners outrank everyone except doctors and nurses in societal – if not finance of indeed immigration – status, has, or bloody well ought to have, occasioned a bit of a rethink.)

Rather less comfortably, but illustrative of priorities that we are now forced to actually LOOK at, it transpires that the effective protection of the GENERAL health service also trumps the safety of those who live and work in care homes for the elderly and vulnerable. In order to make room for a potential “tsunami” of Covid patients, hospitals had to be emptied of patients who were not at that moment in need of critical care.  And if the consequences in our care homes were tragic, then the Darwinian pragmatics of the ordering of society and its priorities were disquietingly exposed as a consequence.

Similarly, it turns out that people who work in delivery and food retail are actually “essential” to all those bankers and playwrights who can work from home.  And as lockdown is eased on the deceptively consensual idea that “the economy needs to get going again,” similarly brutal realities are exposed. Such as, you have to open schools or provide childcare before people can go to work. Thus, according to the Daily Mail, “teachers (and children) must be heroes.” To which the predictable responses of teachers, (as well as children and their parents) is “you first, mate!”

What we are doing in the easing of lockdown, in putting our societies back together in a specific order of re-openings is that we are making conscious, practical choices about how those societies actually function, in the order of what we actually value most. Postal workers and delivery drivers are modern aristocrats by this measure. This understanding was quite impossible when we were stuck in the Trumpian universe we used to live in, where handing out free money to people who were already rich was the answer to all of life’s little difficulties. But it is, however briefly, possible now.

As I write, it appears too that it is currently the judgement of the Prime Minister that it is more important to the nation that he hangs on to his personal focus group Svengali than the entire public health strategy of the last ten weeks is fatally undermined. All of which goes to show that one consequence of the beginning of the end of lockdown, or at least the end of the beginning, is that value judgements about what matters in the ordering of society and what matters most to us, indeed, who “we” are, is no longer a simple matter of vapid rhetoric about all being in it together. We are bound to get a bit controversial.

“The Veil of Ignorance” might be a useful thing to think about as we plan to lift the lockdown. The idea, associated most with American thinker John Rawls, is that, as a mental exercise and way of judging what happens in the “real world,” you set about designing a social system with no foreknowledge of your own position in it.Given that “normal,”for a lot of people (as in the phrase “back to normal”) was and is pretty crappy, the idea is to imagine a just economy (in terms of housing, health, cultural activity etc etc) where you and your ethnic or social group have NO guarantee of being at the top.

Most people who get to design societies, from Solon to Solomon or Jefferson to Lenin, (let alone UK civil servants) have imagined themselves to be in charge of their dream projects…because, through violence or the inherited benefits of violence, they WERE. But we live in a democracy, and in a democracy, we theoretically get to debate and agree how we want to live: what matters most and in what order.

I suggest that we are in the the “Vale of the Veil of Ignorance” right now…in that we know everything is going to change, but none of us has the first idea to what. We are getting to debate and agree on some of this stuff right now…from the explosion of food distribution charities, to clapping for carers and as we come out of lockdown, we have a limited window of choosing what we actually WANT from the New Normal, of speaking aloud the unspoken consensus we are actually already using to make decisions.

To illustrate the uncertainty personally, playwrights and others have been asking Arts Councils and government ministers for years to consciously and openly decide whether they really want a professional theatre sector in Scotland or not, and to act on that choice. Guess what? Something like that decision about whether the kind of theatre we have been making in the kind of way we’ve been doing it actually matters is actually GOING TO HAPPEN in the next year or so! As the Prime Mnister will no doubt learn this week, the answers to your questions may not be what you thought. I only hope my colleagues and I can make a better case for ourselves than he did.

Less myopically, lifting lockdown on a whole society brings, I think, an obligation to at least partially articulate the principles on which we can agree to its functioning. And that we MAKE those choices without knowing where in the new hierarchy we ourselves will end up! And if it turns out that the “new normal”, is lazily indistinguishable from the rotten, corrupt old one, well, it will turn out that that is who we are, that is who we choose to be.

It may well be that this is already happening. Maybe we should be talking about it.

Comments (2)

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  1. Richard Easson says:

    Maybe we should be talking about it and then the next tsunami of Brexit is due to come along and wash any high aspirations or hope away.
    P.S. sorry to be so negative, or is it realistic?

    1. Peter Arnott says:

      What I think depends on which side of the bed I’ve got out of. And this morning the sun is shining and Douglas Ross just wrecked the spin doctors’ breakfast, so…

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