‘To experience a crisis is to inhabit a world that is temporarily up for grabs’ — how we can use this moment to create change

I think it’s worth noting here that I am not aiming to discuss what will happen as a result of the Coronavirus crisis, but what we can and should do.

This crisis, virtually unparalleled in my lifetime in that it feels like history, presents a huge opportunity for the Left.

This is, after all, a crisis of Capitalism.

We can see that in the initial causes of the disease, thought to be something to do with the destruction of biodiversity.

We can see that in the spread of it, transmission through a ‘wet’ animal markets — the likes of which had only not been outlawed because authorities knew that prohibition would simply drive the practice underground, a mark of both individualism in and of itself and desperation driven by being poorer actors in an individualistic society.

However, whilst this crisis is fairly exclusively one of capitalism, that doesn't mean that the crisis will automatically be a turning point for anti-capitalists. If that is to happen that will take work.

Namely, specific, promising opportunities arising from the crisis need to be identified and worked on; beyond simply outlining similar narratives to the one I have above (although this has huge potential in an of itself; as Naomi Klein points out, some people will now only ever have known capitalism in crisis). Fortunately, there are several of these opportunities.

Winning the narrative argument

The first of these is not so much an opportunity per se. It is both an opportunity and something we must do — win the narrative argument over this crisis, rather than lose it as we — we meaning, here, not just the Left but Social Democrats as well — lost the argument in/over 2008.

This same event has even been interpreted differently in different countries as a result of the strength of discussion-shaping on various sides — whereas the right in Britain managed to shape the discussion so that we did and, to quite a large extent, view the financial crash as resulting from public overspending, in Ireland, that narrative did not and does not exist — showing the plasticity of the narratives around events.

The 2008 crash is particularly interesting in this regard because the winning narrative in this country is so far removed from the truth, serving to underline the plasticity of the narrative around events. Whilst we should not be looking to lie, we should be aware of the breadth of narratives that can be hung off the same event, and the consequent need to win this battle.

So what could a winning left-wing narrative look like here? How do we tell the story of this crisis in our terms? Generally, truth is, of course, vital: whilst you can win with lies (as the right, aided by our largely impotent, if not outright collaborative legacy media, have shown time and time again), winning with truth is the only way to win in the way that makes the most progress in pursuit of our aims. We must have faith that this can be done; we must have faith in what we believe. (Pragmatic compromise with regards to truth, particularly when ‘truth’ is understood as full truth and transparency, in narratives is always possible, but it must be carefully considered — certainly, far more carefully than the considerations of most politicians here).

Ideally, hope must also be present. I feel hope is more powerful than fear, generally, because it tends to be more attractive and therefore more politically unifying.

Whatever narrative we settle on, it should ideally also be clear, relate closely to lived experience, and contain ample and explicit outlining of relevant power relations and how these have played out in the crisis.

Relatedly, there will be two specific arguments about our economy in the aftermath of this. These arguments will likely interact with the above narrative, and they must also be won. Namely, they will be the argument over the economy we rebuild (e.g. who gets bailouts? Do airlines), and who pays for it and the emergency Government measures undertaken during the crisis. Winning these arguments will almost certainly require winning the narrative on what happened, as well as making use of some of huge, fundamental changes in ideological outlook that could take place amongst the public as a result of this crisis, and which are considered in further detail in the below section.

Going further than winning the short term arguments — using this as a turning point

‘The sense of possibility may not be foreclosed again’

The last global crisis didn’t change the world. But this one could, William Davies, The Guardian

‘If nothing else, this illustrates quite clearly that the only limit to our capacity for change is our political will and our imaginations.’

Community Against Coronavirus, Charlie Winstanley, Tribunal

This is the central point, the central thing which must come out of this crisis for anyone seeking radical change. This moment can mark a step-change in the fundamental ideology which the entire country has faith in. There are some key reasons this could be that moment: firstly, increased feelings of solidarity amongst people, secondly, the realisations of the extents to which we exist outside our jobs, and the consequent possibility of identifying less around work and idealising work less, thirdly, the realisation that individualization, austerity and capitalism have led to this crisis and, fourthly, the way this crisis highlights the extent to which we are not allowed to make decisions about our lives and our communities (rather, they are generally made by Governments and companies).

None of these factors are likely to cause real change if they are simply left to their own devices — the Black Death at most sped up changes which were already taking place. It is our job, as those who want radical change, to both to speed up these changes, and/or create them.

The reason this could be a turning point, or at least the reason I feel it could be, is because it is huge. And when society changes in a huge manner temporarily, there must at least be the question mark of if things will magically go back to the way they were before.

However, there are some pretty resounding factors weighing against change happening. The structure of society is fundamentally unchanged, and in fact responses to this crisis have largely relied on existing institutions (both international and national, state and private), only embedding their presence. Aside from relatively superficial (but nonetheless important) changes (such as those which may be possible if we organise along the lines outlined in the section below), it is overwhelmingly likely that, as a result of the structural lack of change, we will drift back into the world we lived in before.

Nonetheless, let us interrogate these factors and see how we can build on them. Doing so quickly reveals the fundamental weakness of them as factors likely to be able to built on to cause change — for nearly all of them (namely: the realisation that individualization, austerity and capitalism have led to this crisis, the realisations of the extents to which we exist outside our jobs and the consequent possibility of identifying less around work and idealising work less, and the way this crisis highlights the extent to which we are not allowed to make decisions about ourselves and our communities), likely the most that can really be said about them in terms of them being new opportunities for action is that it might be possible to use them as evidence in argument in the future(although, of course, this use should not be underestimated).

What’s perhaps important to note here is that fundamental change can happen with relatively little action by activists, particularly when it comes to changing peoples’ minds. Two good examples here are when various factors around WW2 drove the building of the welfare state, and when austerity and the general shitness of the Labour Party drove Corbyn’s 2015 victory. So, the two factors I highlight in the previous paragraph may still be very, very important when we look back in years to come, even though they don’t represent huge opportunities for action for us.

As for the remaining factor — increased feelings of solidarity — we can also say that it may in time prove to be a major historical factor without much to do with the Left, beyond our using it as evidence in argument/it opening up further space for our arguments: a renewed communitarian impulse could drive the electorate towards more muscular welfare and perhaps even community ownership measures, very a la 1945.

But aside from all this, there are further opportunities for action in relation to increased solidarity. The Tribune article Community Against Coronavirus explains the nature of these increased feelings of solidarity, relative to ‘normal times’, and the actions that drive them/are being driven by them, much of which fall under the umbrella of ‘mutual aid groups’:

In normal times, capitalism engenders a profound sense of alienation within most working people. Most people are separated from the true value of objects and are distant from power or influence. They participate in life as cogs in a machine that doesn’t operate for their benefit; this creates a dulled sense of engagement and autonomy among individuals, who are subject to complex, stratified social hierarchies which they have little influence over…

In a way that we haven’t witnessed since the Second World War, the current crisis has created a profound shift in the attitudes of many millions of people. Tribune recently reported on the Spirit of Salford Network, an initiative driven by Labour councillors to unite volunteer relief efforts across the city. This vast network has not only created a thriving body for civically-minded Salfordians to offer their support to the wider community, but has illuminated drastic shifts in the basic ways that people are discussing the material resources of society, their allocation and distribution, and how the public are expected to interact with them.

A charming, slightly eccentric suggestion from Spirit of Salford’s Facebook group encapsulates this changing attitude. In a post which garnered hundreds of responses and generated detailed discussion, one Salford resident proposes the effective requisitioning of ice cream vans to help distribute food parcels to those in need:

‘Just to chuck a thought out there, how many parents at times dread the ice cream man’s melody but the kids love. Maybe this melody could be utilised in a completely different way. Instead of stocking the van with ice cream and lollies, stock up with essential stuff for the elderly and isolated. Ice cream man drives and a volunteer in the back to deliver to the persons door. How would the isolated people know assistance is there? The ice cream van melody.’

The suggestion may be impractical. But placed amongst hundreds of other suggestions for repurposing private property, businesses and spaces for the fight against coronavirus, it indicates a fundamentally radical reassessment of the nature of goods and materials within our society, and how they can be best put to use. To many, the world ordinarily appears closed off, belonging to others and accessible through monetary transactions only. However, this international crisis is opening the imaginations of millions to ways in which they might participate more fully in society, accessing the resources they see around them and using them to fight the virus.

Spirit of Salford’s Facebook page, as well as other community social media pages, are awash not only with suggestions for requisitioning goods and services for the fight against the virus, but also with offers of mutual aid and assistance. Within a few days of Spirit of Salford launching, around 700 people signed up to be volunteers.

So, our new (for now, temporary) society appears to be one of radically increased solidarity, both in terms of action and feeling. But the article then goes on to note:

The spirit and enthusiasm of the current moment could collapse if not encouraged and nurtured carefully. Mutual aid is far from the preserve of the Left: in recent years, fascist groups such as Golden Dawn in Greece have colonised this space far more effectively than comparable Left organisations and used it to drive a divisive racist agenda…

We need to develop a discourse which recognises the often clumsy and fledging articulations of a different perspective on our economic system; that harnesses and gives credence to the best elements of the participatory spirit which is developing across so many areas of the UK.

We need to recognise the radical potential in the community spirit and opening of imaginations for so many members of the public. In all the plurality, impracticality and apparent strangeness of many of these suggestions, they reflect a rare opportunity for mass creativity and social engagement.

It will be the job of the Left to ensure that such perspectives on the world are not limited to periods of crisis; that social purpose and solidarity are not the preserve of pandemics, but are sustainable and practical philosophies on which to sustain a society in perpetuity.

Community-based socialist institutions as a way of building on mutual aid groups

For one immediate, very concrete way we might be able to build on these new-found senses of solidarity and ability to care and provide for others outside of the structures of capitalism, we can look backwards. In Tribune, Marcus Barnett writes of the power of socialist institutions, from cycling clubs to dance halls:

In an engaging Guardian piece, Labour MP Alex Sobel urged Labour to rebuild a culture of ‘visible, practical, and helpful grassroots action’ in local areas. Referencing the largely-vanished unemployed centres that trade unionists established in areas where community livelihoods were being stolen by Thatcherism, Sobel advocates establishing Labour advice ‘hubs’ that can advocate for people struggling with benefits or housing issues, or can sort out a cooked meal for those who are struggling to afford one….

We have forgotten that our movement was once interested in its capacity to run things its own way, and to provide for our people when the rest of society would not. When the British labour movement was founded, those committed to the transformation of society recognised the need to engage and develop a socialist presence in all walks of life. There was once a range of socialist pubs, clubs, associations, musical groups, sports facilities, and so on, that gave Labour’s internal culture a vivacity.

These institutions offered a presence in social life that could allow socialists to gain respect for their ideas in their communities. They suggested that, given the opportunity, the people who provided them with many of the best aspects of their life could also do something with the reins of state power. In weavers’ terraces in Yorkshire and Lancashire, pit villages in Scotland and South Wales, and the docklands areas of London and Liverpool, socialists attempted to build a society within a society that would display the movement’s seriousness to disinterested or apathetic friends, workmates, and neighbours….

In so many former industrial areas, people feel isolated from their neighbours, let alone the corridors of Westminster. Our urgent task is to begin rebuilding a socialist infrastructure that can change this. Socialists should be the people who run the pubs you want to go into; who chip in together to help run the boxing clubs and the swimming pools; who give the cancer sufferers’ support group a free space at their local hall, and operate the mobile video libraries for the elderly. Austerity has destroyed much of these communal facilities in most of the country. Socialists could do far worse than spending their time attempting to fill that vacuum….

Alberto Garzón, who ignored the grimaces of the Spanish King during his swearing-in as Spain’s first Communist minister since the Second Republic, pointed a way forward for the Left across Europe in Tribune last year

‘…The Left needs to be present in all spaces where socialisation takes place. This includes television and social media but also sports clubs, bars, neighbourhood associations and, of course, unions….’….

In the past, we appealed to people on the basis of their own life development and meeting their social needs and desires. We grafted to attempt to make those feelings a reality. We demonstrated that we could do something better in the here and now to creating a counterweight to the misery of the world around us, and through offering even the slightest things, we could challenge the dominant values of capitalist society and offer the prospect of a new world.

Similarly, Labour Transformed’s April Communique email writes:

Mutual aid and solidarity are the bedrock upon which socialist movements were historically made. They also hold the blueprint to a future society — one no longer based on competition and individualisation but on collective human flourishing and happiness.

So, community-based socialist institutions are powerful in several manners. It is possible to demarcate three from the above material. Firstly, these institutions demonstrate socialism in action (we might note that this works both in the observer sense — people see that socialism can work — and in the participant sense people feel the connected spirit that can come with participating in community-based, public institutions and activities). Secondly, and perhaps less fundamentally, these institutions provide a space in which socialist ideas can be spread and socialists can become familiar. Thirdly, since this is, as we’ve said, socialism in action, there is a strong argument for socialists spending more time on these activities. We do not need to wait to elect a Government to begin practising socialism.

A point to add here may be that there may be a case for moving beyond the kind of examples evoked in the article above in the sense that they tend to be quite top-down and centralised; as this crisis is showing, particularly in the realm of basic life needs, decentralising and de-hierarchising the process, and relying on a theme of mutual reliance can be incredibly empowering. It has the potential to give people closer control of their lives, a key Left aim.

And there is a clear route for building on mutual aid groups to build new socialist societies. There is no reason to think that new-built networks and feelings of solidarity (notably not charity, as several Mutual Aid Facebook group descriptions and headings make clear) can’t be transferred across to new, Left organisations and networks if we are quick to act in setting up new, similar, post-crisis institutions, a place for these energies and connections to go, and then later using these as a springboard for other institutions, like sports clubs and dance halls. Having left-wing people at the heart of these would be of such value.

These networks and feelings present a unique opportunity. A final word, though — we must be transparent in how we act, including both in terms of not ‘stealing’ data or concrete networks for our own, new networks — these transfers of networks and feelings should be done wholly by the participants. Anything else will make it unlikely that these institutions can be used to build a healthy, non-hierarchical social movement.

There are more expansive visions we probably could (and should) have in terms of building on this solidarity, but this isn’t a bad place to start. Moreover, it has the advantage of having a clear template to implement.

New truths and possibilities

There are some ways Coronavirus could expand visions in ways which are far more concrete, less abstract and less fundamental than those factors outlined above — the ones which could lead to Coronavirus being looked back on as a ‘turning point’. These less fundamental expansions of visions could happen in at least three senses. Being aware of these three expanded visions can, variously, provide evidence in argument and/or specific aims to organise around.

The first way could simply be the fact that public spending myths have been exposed as such. This works both in the relatively abstract — £330 billion of borrowed funding is now acceptable because the Government say it is, as if it were not needed before — and the more concrete —for example, homeless people have been housed in hotels, overnight, at the drop of the hat. The suffering that homeless people endured never had to happen, and that is now clearer than ever.

Secondly, visions could be expanded with regards to ambitious, utopian policies. When policies are changed in times of disaster they nonetheless provide a new way of relating to each other which requires a shift back. Demonstration of the power of this concept can come from the fact that, for example, income tax was originally introduced as an emergency measure to pay for the Napoleonic wars. A similar logic could very easily apply to, for example, Universal Basic Income.

Thirdly, there is a particular expansion of visions in terms of what can be done digitally — i.e. more working at home for people, less travelling for meetings or events that could be done digitally, including those held abroad. This expansion can lead to an expansion in workers’ comfort here — we can hope for less abuse of workers now workers have seen what is possible here, and will now, hopefully, demand better.

NHS

This opportunity is far less concept based and far more concrete. It is also relatively limited in ambition: one would hope that this could be achieved well within the boundaries of the current economic system, even within the boundaries of Conservative governance, perhaps. It is simply ample funding for the NHS.

There is no doubt that a) the NHS is underfunded (even regardless of this crisis) b) we ought to try and resolve this (again, regardless of this crisis) and c) this underfunding will cause a vast amount of deaths in relation to this pandemic; already, ventilators and ICU places are being rationed, at least some of the time using a cold, points-based system, as well as PPE for staff (some of which is lacking because the NHS was recommended not to stockpile it by the Government because it would be too expensive). Whilst the disease is from the natural world, the seriousness of its effects is entirely man-made; with more resources, we could save more lives. It is political, and it is the Tory Government’s fault.

However, there is a real danger that we don’t make this point in the best way possible — drawing the direct line between the seriousness of this crisis and NHS underfunding. There is a danger that we can drawn into only criticising the Government around some particular aspects of health underfunding here such as lack of appropriate PPE or testing in and of themselves, rather than also making the far more fundamental and therefore far more powerful point, which is that many, many deaths related to the virus will be a direct result of NHS underfunding. This underfunding is a problem that is entirely man-made, entirely a result of political choice and entirely preventable, if we so wanted.

After this crisis, we could have our 1945 movement. We can act to make this happen, and what we do can always make a difference — especially now, when nothing is certain and everything can change.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store