Isolation is Communal - Covid19


Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine - Under the shelter of each other people survive.

It is within times of crisis when the thin veil of neoliberalism slips to reveal the emperor is not wearing any clothes. It exposes the sheer inefficacy of capitalism to cope with human crises and cater for the most basic human needs. In these times, when the capitalist state is left reeling, we see glimpses of community, solidarity and interdependence emerge once again - the very ideals neoliberalism has for the last 40 odd years attempted to erode and eradicate. It exposes that the ‘common sense’ manner of organising our lives, work and economy is entirely at odds with the will of the people but also, very importantly, it provides us with the opportunity to imagine a transformed world.

There is a very distinct layer of poinency in reading the late Mark Fisher’s ‘Capitalist Realism’ at this moment in time. Fisher wrote the book directly preceding the global financial crash in 2008, prior to this, imagining a break with neoliberalism felt impossible; a major stagnating point of the left has been it’s failure to prefigure or create at scale a vision of what a transformed world should look like. He argued that the greatest success of neoliberalism was to limit our imagination of what social movements could achieve in building towards a revolutionary world. Fisher lived to see the fallout of the financial crisis, accelerated inequality and how society was organised upwards. It certainly felt as though the ideological bond with neoliberalism was broken and this was becoming steadily more recognisable throughout the decade. However, in absence of a strong, organised left, a viable alternative felt out of reach. Despite the fact most acknowledge the current system is inherently unjust.

The current crisis is not a banking crisis or a crisis of debt as it was in 2008, it feels much more concrete and immediate than that. Today’s crisis forces us to rely on the tools humankind have always relied upon: solidarity, care and interdepence. It is through these tools that we find the means to cope but also we can begin to imagine and prefigure what a transformed world should look like. 

A politics of care is the politics of anarchism

What could reveal the limitations and indeed failure of neoliberalism more than a global pandemic. An ideology based on cultivating individualism will not assist us in overcoming this crisis; social solidarity is acknowledging the concessions we all collectively make by isolating ourselves are acts of care and are there to protect those who are most vulnerable to the virus. This is largely seen in the wide scale compliance with physical distancing and isolation measures made on behalf of public health expertise. It is seen also in the numerous mutual aid, community and support groups that have sprung up over the last number of weeks.

As anarchists, communists and leftists we do not speak at an individual level, we instead strive for the communal, we build social bonds and break down power dynamics and hierarchies that may arise in the process. To do this we must look at our interdependence on the people around us and see how thoroughly we are indebted to the assistance of others. Kropotkin defined solidarity as ‘the unconscious recognition of the force that is borrowed by each man from the practice of mutual aid; of the close dependency of everyone’s happiness upon the happiness of all’. When speaking on mutual aid, Kroptokin himself acknowledged that merit should not be awarded based on our individual contributions towards a comunal aim but rather on the multitude of efforts by innumerous others that allows any one person to contribute, by doing so he placed dependency above our ability to contribute and considered human vulnerability as a key virtue.

To organise a society around need opposed to profit requires us to acknowledge our dependence on community and social bonds; in this sense interdependence is a revolutionary aim:

“All things are for all men, since all men have need of them, since all men have worked in the measure of their strength to produce them, and since it is not possible to evaluate every one’s part in the production of the world’s wealth. That each and every person has a right to well being; there is a right to well being for all”

As well as being a revolutionary aim, it provides us a basis to fundamentally rethink what we consider necessary and valuable, why forms of labour that focus on care are undervalued and how to resist against the privatisation of care work - both by private firms creating two tier health systems and by the state who push care work back into the realm of the nuclear family where it’s seen as a ‘private’ family issue. The latter is becoming increasingly prevalent, in an article by Helen Lewis in New Atlantic, she outlines now with child care facilities and schools closed, caring, nurturing and educational responsibilities are now taking place as unpaid labour inside the home. Women who generally occupy caring roles, while also being more likely to hold jobs that are part-time, more flexible and pay less; women - out of obligations both traditional and practical - are more likely to pick up the additional workload compared with their male counterparts in the home. 

An anarchist definition of care and nurturance must firstly break with the maternal archetype but also expand upon our notion of care, the Care Collective define this as “not only the ‘hands-on’ care people do when directly looking after the physical and emotional needs of others. ‘Care’ is also an enduring social capacity and practice involving the nurturing of all that is necessary for the welfare and flourishing of human and non-human life.”

The implications of such a definition of care are far and expansive. It has the potential to encompass community based spaces and infrastructure, public green spaces, community libraries, recreational and educational centres. We are now presented with a chance to redefine our localities and communities, to claw back resources against neoliberalism’s insatiable urge to privatise all and to create these resources outside the central authority of the capitalist state.

Does the state ‘care’? Social democracy versus revolutionary change.

“We’re all Keynsian now” - Richard Nixon

A common feature of the crisis has been the scrambling of right wing states to implement more socialised measures in terms of income protection and health care. In the space of two weeks we have witnessed Fine Gael state they are abolishing the two tier health system (at least temporarily), the DUP calling for universal basic income and the Tories offering up to 80% of earnings for self-employed and salaried workers. While these measures are surely welcomed by all those trying to survive with loss of income, we should not be duped or placated by social democratic measures but use them as a springboard to organise for the world we want to see and live in.

Fine Gael do not feel that workers are owed the concessions they are being shown, nor do their sympathies lie with workers whose income has disappeared overnight. The roll out of centre left measures is much more likely to be the result of their hand being forced by the public. Firstly, by the fact that Fine Gael’s free-market driven ideology cannot cope with a crisis like this and secondly, in February the electorate gave an abundantly clear message on what it would be willing to tolerate. There was no viable option other than to concede ground to moderate left policies or see their party crumble. We should not forget the cynical nature with which these measures are being rolled out, and the insistence that “under normal circumstances” such measures would “economic suicide”. Nor should it be forgotten the disdain and contempt they treated health care workers over a year ago who they now patronisingly deem as heroes. They are heroes undoubtedly, but this needs to be acknowledged with material gains not with hollow applause.

Varadkar as Minister for Health in 2016 stated in an article in the Independent: “‘What can happen in some hospitals is sometimes, when they have more beds and more resources, that's what kind of slows it down.’

When asked why, he replied: "Because they [hospital staff] don't feel as much under pressure.”

Directly preceding the nurses strike in February 2019 Simon Harris stated in another article by the Independent that financial penalties would be considered for striking nurses by pausing increments and pay restoration guaranteed by the Public Service Stability Agreement.

The history of the various peaks of social democracy is a curious one. The strongest movements for social democracy occurred after times of intense crisis: the New Deal in the US after the Wall St. crash in the 1930s, the rise of the SPD after the First World War in Germany or the establishment of the welfare state in the UK in the aftermath of World War 2. Taking the UK as an example, after WW2 the British state was left in tatters. The huge loss of life and massive destruction of infrastructure meant the capitalist state could not organise itself as it did prior to the war. Large scale labour movements also ensured workers demands were met. Vast swathes of public/council housing was built, education was largely free and well funded and perhaps most significantly the NHS was established. Even the most hardened of leftists cannot deny these measures brought about very notable improvements to people’s quality of life and well-being. So what went wrong? How did social democracy fade into history and essentially provide zero resistance for Thatcherism despite large labour movements, strong trade unions and massive public consent?

It’s famously said social democracy was the greatest saviour of capitalism, and indeed how could the capitalist state survive such crises like world wars or global pandemics without socialised policies? One could argue that through bureaucracy, the Labour party and union leaders themselves became a new elite, as they rose through the ranks of their respective institutions only to become corrupted by state power. The traditional left institutions of the union and the party were undemocratic and self compromising, to paraphrase Stuart Hall they were no longer representatives of the working class but managers of the working class. When rates of profitability could no longer be maintained social democracy was wiped out with the stroke of a pen.

After forty years of neoliberalism, there is something still to be salvaged from the era of social democracy and that is the sense of community and solidarity that surrounded it. The SPD in Germany could never have become the political force it was without the grassroots organisation. SPD members established beer halls, sports clubs, women’s groups, youth clubs to name just a few. It created social ties that bred a strong sense of solidarity within the locality. Without community British mining towns and villages could never have survived as long as they did when Thatcher brought war to their doorstep.There is no doubt that these are incredible examples of the programs of care and nurturance we spoke of earlier. Presently, we can see these bonds emerging once more. We must ask ourselves as anarchists will it be the state that can take your kids for the evening, will it offer to pick you up a few groceries or check on your eldery relatives if you are working? As anarchists and revolutionaries how do we take the institutional gains of social democracy, democratise and commuminse them?

Now we are left with the question: how do we build movements for revolutionary change in isolation? The fight of our lives is coming so what are the tools we need to learn to build capacity in our communities and workplaces and what can we do to get ready now? A steep learning curve is ahead of activists whose power has traditionally, and for good reason, been in the streets. We need to adapt to entirely new ways of organising at least in the short to medium term if we are to have a chance of winning a transformed world. We have the principles now what we need are the tools.