A False Renewal
Towards a genuine reckoning.
Looking out of a window in West London in my mid-thirties I see myself looking out of another window in rural North Wales as an anxious teenager. Lately I reflect on a period in my life with distinct similarities but a different scale to the one I now occupy. The first struggling with social phobias and the second isolating from a global pandemic. The first in an isolation not many relate to, the second in an isolation I share with most of my compatriots as well as countless others across the world.
The idea of opening up in the context of Covid-19 conjures a society at a moment of joyous renewal. It conjures imagery of budding flowers, of spring and courage and optimism. But the real mood that characterises the opening up of the UK, during a pandemic that has further atomised an already deeply atomised society, is one of timidity and anxiety. The same feelings I felt alone as a teenager feel deeply shared now.
This pervasive anxiety at the end of lockdown exists, in part, for obvious, pragmatic reasons. Chiefly because variants of the Coronavirus remain an unknown quantity, and the track record of this woeful Tory government in managing a public health catastrophe is self-evidently atrocious. Given such factors who can feel at all confident that this opening will last? Even is an opening at all? Or even, were it to go ahead on its projected terms, whether it is a wise decision?
Such doubts are further fueled by contradictory advice from official bodies and people. Government advisor Sir Jeremy Farrar, for example, agrees with lifting restrictions, but has also cautioned people not to take advantage of them by meeting indoors. The government itself tells people not to holiday to high-risk areas despite allowing them to do so. Without maybe even wanting to do something so ludicrous as to willfully spread the virus about the world, people still pick up on a general ambivalence from those entrusted with authority.
More profound is what was never fully absorbed into public memory, but remains in the background of everything Covid related. The around 130,000 deaths, but specifically the atrocity of a government pumping the virus directly into care homes, of institutions utilising DNRs on patients with learning disabilities. If our humanity were intact, the outrage at what has been done to the disabled, sick and elderly during this period would reshape British politics, but rather than that fury the country has settled into a discomforting malaise.
So if the UK is experiencing something like a renewal, it is an obscene one. The change in policy, the coming out into the world again (at least for those of us not deemed too essential to be allowed to safeguard themselves), certainly does not begin to resolve the many horrors and griefs of this crisis, but hurriedly, frettingly, obscures the suffering and injustices. This all has the makings of a false beginning; while mass consciousness has not faced up to what has happened, has not absorbed its meaning, a traumatic display of forgetting, progressing, hardly even persuades those most wholeheartedly ready for this moment.
What would a real renewal look like? First, we would need to know what would be required for such a thing. Foremost would be an acknowledgement that the virus was not merely bad luck, an act of God, but emerged as it did because of the interactions between human society and nature.
As Andreas Malm shows in detail in Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency, prevailing productive forces, global supply lines, and agribusiness’s erosion of wildernesses make pandemics increasingly likely and harder to overcome. Moreover, this is merely one symptom of the metabolic rift, a larger rupture between humanity and nature that also encompasses and is directly interwoven with global warming. In Malm’s words, we need to be radical:
To be ‘radical’, after all, means aiming at the roots of troubles; to be radical in the chronic emergency is to aim at the ecological roots of perpetual disasters. Corona and climate are not, it bears repeating, the sole components of this ordeal. There is a long list of time bombs waiting to blow up—insect collapse, plastic pollution, soil depletion, ocean acidification, renewed ozone depletion, not to exclude the possibility of nuclear meltdowns or other surprises—but the present has picked these two for a shortlist, and they are enough to keep us busy for some time. There is a point where they interact with special intensity.
Beyond an acknowledgement of humanity’s (and, in particular, capital’s) role in the pandemic, and implied by this acknowledgement, would be justice. I have already mentioned what has been done to essential workers as well as the disabled, sick and elderly, and it is worth reiterating, but in addition there are great international injustices to contend with too.
Even at the level of hoarding vaccines, protecting patents or playing other geopolitical games with the response of various countries, we can see clearly the inability of those who rule us to prioritise humanity over systems of domination. And moreover, if we are to accept that social processes created this situation, and that these processes are led by particular interests (those associated with profit accumulation), justice means a reappraisal of our systems and those who do well by them.
The philosopher and Karl Marx’s lifelong collaborator, Friedrich Engels, coined the term social murder. It describes the unnecessary deaths that result from systemic forces, but to the benefit of the ruling class. A good recent example of horrifying social murder in the UK is the fire that engulfed Grenfell tower, which had dangerous cladding to the benefit of the building’s owners, but which resulted in so many unnecessary deaths. Engels described social murder in stark and vivid terms:
When one individual inflicts bodily injury upon another such that death results, we call the deed manslaughter; when the assailant knew in advance that the injury would be fatal, we call his deed murder. But when society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live — forces them, through the strong arm of the law, to remain in such conditions until that death ensues which is the inevitable consequence — knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual; disguised, malicious murder, murder against which none can defend himself, which does not seem what it is, because no man sees the murderer, because the death of the victim seems a natural one, since the offence is more one of omission than of commission. But murder it remains.
Finally, a renewal must take place on fertile soil. The next period of regrowth cannot take place in a wasteland of ash and death. The systems that took us to this catastrophe, the systems of social murder and generalized abjection, would have to be replaced wholesale.
We would need to start organising our world according to human needs, and no longer pretending that the profit motive is a substitute for human choice and self-mastery. We would have to question the prerogative of all of those who claim a right to govern, when they have so demonstrably failed and continue to plunge the planet into new nightmares.
So what does it mean to open up if we still treat the metabolic rift as a happenstance of nature, when there has been no intimation of justice, and when no systemic change is proposed? It is a kind of farce, but one without even the wry jubilance that word suggests. A dull parody of renewal, a dishonest beginning that represents, in fact, the continuity of catastrophe.
The genuine renewal we all need is within our grasp. An understanding of our predicament is possible, a fury at those who led us here can be mustered, a hope in new, imaginative futures can be borne out of that fury. If we merely play-act normality, however, renewal might one day be truly an impossibility. Our chance at justice and change might be lost forever.
As I look out of my window today, I can imagine I am staring directly into that other window from my past. In both instances the injunction to step out becomes ever more pressing, and in both instances, there is a concern over what that means. But whereas before the process of leaving the safety of the indoors was more clearly a sign of personal growth and wellbeing, now it seems rooted in a collective decision that could be better described as a sign of regression and social sickness. Yes we are stepping out, but are we doing so bravely? And into what kind of world? What kind of future?
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