It’s a truism to say that the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare and deepened the faultlines in contemporary society. In the UK, after a long period of indecision, Boris Johnson has announced a total lockdown, to be enforced by the police with fines and dispersing public gatherings of more than two people. Johnson has apparently been pressured into action by signs that the UK’s deaths from coronavirus are following the same trajectory as Italy. Against the strong recommendations of public health experts, on the other hand, Donald Trump is doing the opposite in the US, signalling the possibility of lifting social distancing guidelines after influential Republicans became concerned about their effects on the economy.
The changing positions of Johnson and Trump are symptoms of specific faultlines in neoliberal society. While the pandemic requires strong and systematic central direction, they are unable to provide it. Their vacillations contrast with the leadership being given by local administrations, such as mayors and state governors, who are closer to and more responsive to civil society, and by more authoritarian nations whose legitimacy depends on maintaining the cohesiveness of civil society.
Noam Chomsky commented on the US government’s sluggish response to the pandemic: “There’s a concept of economy and efficiency. You should have just enough beds for what you need tomorrow. You shouldn’t prepare for the future. Right? So the hospital system’s crashing. Simple things like tests which you can easily get in a country South Korea, you can’t get here. So the coronavirus, which should be controlled in a functioning society, is going out of hand here. We’re just not ready for it. What we’re good at, what our leaders are good at, and have been very good at for the last 40 years, is pouring money into the pockets of the rich and the corporate executives while everything else crashes.”
The most effective responses to the virus have come from countries with relatively strong central states – such as France, Germany, South Korea, Taiwan, and China. Global health expert Dr. Michele Barry told Democracy Now that the early testing carried out by Taiwan and Singapore had made a huge difference. “They quarantined people who had contacts, and isolated those that were sick.” In Taiwan all the important ministries coordinated to give out essential information and combat disinformation. “You may argue that some have been very draconian, but then, when you have a small little country like Taiwan, that abuts China and was able to do it with central command … they have had the experience of SARS1, so they were set up. For instance, there were fever clinics set up, where if people had fever, they were immediately transferred to these clinics. They had ability to build hospitals rapidly, which we have not had that ability.”
Economist Jeffrey Sachs also commented: “China battled this virus under control and is now lifting the lockdown measures after about two months. That is the result of rigorous containment policies, tough but also comprehensive testing, contact tracing, isolation of people with symptoms, and they’ve tracked hundreds and hundreds of thousands of cases. They have been able to stop the spread of the pandemic. And China is not alone in that. It is a kind of East Asian model. Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, to a large extent, have all used public health means to bring the spread of the virus under control.”
The decades-long cultivation of neoliberal forms of state in the UK, US and Australia were fundamental in stripping away decision-making powers from central government. In the UK, for example, Johnson advised everyone to stay away from pubs, cafes, restaurants, theatres, cinemas but did not mandate those businesses to close. They were then unable to claim insurance and left to go bankrupt. He declared the schools would close for some students but not others, and would be kept open for free school meals for children that qualified for them. The fragmented school system and the lack of council control over the educational institutions in their areas meant that schools themselves have to determine how this would be done, without any clear idea of how funds would be provided. The government in fact appears to be scrambling to catch up with events. “A ban on mass gatherings was announced last Friday after scores of fixtures and concerts had been cancelled; and nationwide schools closures were confirmed on Wednesday, after thousands of teachers and students had already taken the decision to remain at home.”
It’s no use now for governments to blame individuals for selfish panic buying in supermarkets and for ignoring social distancing recommendations when they have systematically encouraged the individualisation of social responsibility and diminished confidence in central state authority. Despite this, mutual aid groups have sprung up spontaneously in many areas to help vulnerable people through voluntary assistance, some of them spearheaded by the labour movement. Important as these developments are, as the Guardian pointed out in an editorial, it is ultimately “only the state that can ensure the scale of action necessary to show that life can continue with security, and to equalise sacrifice across the population.”
From the point of view of financial capital, the old and sick are an unnecessary overhead that reduce its ability to accumulate because social taxation diverts spending away from capital circulation. Johnson’s “take it on the chin” strategy expressed this arrogant and elitist attitude to the population. But the reaction of civil society to the prospect of a half a million deaths in the UK forced a retreat. Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings reportedly outlined the government’s strategy at a private party in February. It was “herd immunity, protect the economy, and if some pensioners die, too bad.” However, when in March Cummings realized this meant putting the country on a trajectory of deaths worse than that of Italy, he reversed his position to advocate social isolation measures.
According to the Guardian, the reports “connect with wider criticisms that the government response to the virus was initially too weak, based on a notion that rather than limiting its spread, enough people could be allowed to contract it to give population-wide ‘herd immunity’.” Despite government denials, “the use of the phrase illustrated initial tensions within government over how to balance the economic impact of a full national lockdown against the potential number of deaths from the virus.”
Johnson’s vacillations express the tension between the logic of finance capital and the threat of a total loss of governmental legitimacy. Likewise, Trump’s contradictory statements underline the fact that legitimacy is a major issue – he vainly struggles to appear decisive and in charge when the main initiatives are being taken by state governors in lieu of leadership from federal authorities. Now he is backing off on advocating social distancing because of its effect on the stock market. Greg Sargent comments that “in addition to the threat it poses to the country, coronavirus also poses an existential threat to Trump’s presidency. This Trump-protection project will only grow more urgent — which will require more efforts to discredit aggressive media reporting on his handling of the crisis, and on his inevitable hailing of the success of his mitigation efforts.”
From the point of view of state legitimacy, neoliberalism has devolved responsibility and decision-making to regional administrations without supplying them with the necessary resources. The neoliberal state has eroded itself from within. But it is the function of the central state to maintain the circulation of capital – and the impact of the coronavirus has emphasised that for this to happen it needs workers, both to engage in productive labour (such as manufacturing, making deliveries, stacking supermarket shelves, giving medical attention), and equally to consume capital through spending. To lock down the country means bringing circulation to a halt and a major devaluation of capital through the bankruptcies of small businesses and large corporations. To mitigate the effect on capital circulation, various plans of redistribution are being floated, from a $1200 check for every individual in the US and 80% of wages for fulltime workers in the UK. But the attempts of governments to work through the markets inevitably prioritizes the interests of capital over the needs of civil society.
Neoliberals treated workers as numbers on a spreadsheet. But this has come back to bite them when they discover they need workers for social survival. After the pandemic, the faultlines in neoliberal society cannot easily be patched over.