Pre-pandemic class relationships are both shaping and disrupting the politics of covidism
There is nothing like a pandemic to amplify the class dynamics, hitherto on mute, which underpin social order. British public culture combines awareness of each and every person’s proper place — signalled by accent, attire, and demeanour, as well as education, occupation, and postcode — with ignorance of how different groups earn, live, and think.
The left has been trying to come to terms with the inherent difficulties of cross-class alliances for centuries. Karl Marx’s distinction between a class in itself (defined by its relation to the means of production) and a class for itself (having attained collective consciousness), further developed by George Lukács, set the tone. Antonio Gramsci explored the role of ideological hegemony in pacifying working-class resistance to capitalism.
In England, the profound different-ness of the working-class demanded more microscopic study. Labour historians such as E.P. Thompson softened the determinism of early Marxist approaches by considering the formation of working-class consciousness, and its manifestations, an object of study in its own right, since the path to socialist awakening was not preordained. George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier had by then already exposed the gulf in how socialism was viewed between ‘book-trained’ socialists and the more pragmatic working class.
Yet a problematique for the left is, most of the time, unremarkable for society at large. But now that every other person is rendered a severe threat to our own health, simply by existing, we are forced to confront how little we understand about each other. And the economic policy response demanded by the pandemic, by disrupting a system of inequality we experience as normality, asks us questions we may not have the intellectual resources to answer.
Life as we know it
History, for the moment, is on pause. Yet life, which pays little regard to the dialectic, is not. Many millions seemingly ignored edicts carried on social distancing, at least for longer than they should have. As the chart below shows (see here for data), to a greater extent than any other country, the general public in Britain considers that its own response has been insufficient. For all the lolz about artisan food markets in London and traffic jams in the Peak District, the #COVIDIOTS backlash has been a largely classist discourse, aimed primarily at the proles packing out the pubs.
That this behaviour is indefensible does not render it inexplicable. That many working-class people were content to maintain certain habits, despite all evidence that the behaviours were, well, sub-optimal, both for themselves and everyone else, speaks to the power of habituated practice.
Crucially, however, habits are not random. They tend to die hard because they serve a purpose. If you lack agency to remedy the inequalities that dictate your life chances, then you are conditioned to repeat whichever behaviours help get you through; the end of the world might even mean these habits die harder, if they function as coping mechanisms.
Getting lashed with your mates on a Friday night is an excellent case in point. The prospect of self-isolation is difficult to contemplate if it has not been preceded by the self-actualisation the better-off strata take for granted. Yet a subdued individualism creates more positive traits too, such as a neighbourliness ranging from saying hello to ad hoc caring responsibilities — a hidden humanity seemingly being discovered for the first time by many newly homebound, invariably via WhatsApp.
The home front
As the state rightly grabs the baton of capitalist management from the market, the specific policy choices made by our leaders has largely reinforced pre-pandemic class structures.
For example, advice on whether people should be staying away from work has been confusing precisely because our leaders are confused. Working-class employees in large organisations generally do work which is less essential to core business. Yet working at home is a redundant concept if the point of your job is to be available to support higher-skilled staff.
If I may declare an interest, my mum, an administrative assistant for local social services, is in this category. Not, in covidist parlance, a ‘key worker’, but part of an essential service, and irreplaceable at the moment. This is to say nothing of the vast, working-class army in retail, logistics and food production. If they do not work, we die. The government is torn between rewarding such workers if they choose to keep calm and carry on, or disciplining them to ensure they have no choice. (Of course, we die, either way, if they work infected, which is why we will see the state rationalise these activities as the virus spreads.)
The covidist manifesto
Propping up a furloughed workforce has become a key plank of covidism, but so too has the mechanisation of this support via private firms and their creditors. Many will lose their job regardless, or see their pay reduced, such is the flimsiness of employment protection in Britain.
The support belatedly announced for the self-employed is particularly inadequate. Replacing 80 per cent of lost earnings is welcome, yet hardly more generous than the out-of-work benefit system that already exists in many European countries. How many pandemics will it take to reverse austerity?
Much of the critical response has rightly focused on the long delay before payouts will be received. Mortgage holidays will be an easy fix for some, because the debt can simply be elongated, but there will be no staycation for rent, utility or food bills. The scheme does not include those who have only recently become self-employed, or those who use self-employment in combination with formal employment to supplement low wages.
Equally revealing was the Chancellor’s insistence that the scheme has been designed to minimise opportunities for fraudulent claims: could this not have gone without saying, on primetime television, for the time being?
To declare another interest, my dad and brother, as self-employed plasterers, will probably benefit from the scheme. Yet my brother is uncertain whether he will claim. Despite additional risks associated with catching Covid-19, he would rather be working. He articulates this as needing to “keep customers happy”. “Daft I know,” he adds.
It is not daft at all. Working-class tradespeople know in their bones that normality will resume at some point, and they are conditioned not to rely on safety nets. Word-of-mouth is everything in the plastering trade: my brother knows what it takes to survive capitalism, and that this might be jeopardised by what it takes to survive Covid-19.
And this speaks to a more fundamental conditioning, that is, of working class identities being defined by their occupation for many people. Some theorists would describe this as ‘false consciousness’, but clearly an identity can be simultaneously false and forceful. Social distancing will involve self-distancing too.
There will now proceed a levelling, of sorts. There is a long way to go: our understanding of each other will evolve as we face this crisis (and our public sector will continue to expand). When we are liberated from our homes, will we be liberated too from the pre-pandemic social order? Perhaps: but only if we recognise that how we are able to cope now, and indeed allowed to cope, will invariably reflect the lives we lived before.