As the sun sets in the west, as the tide recedes and replenishes, as the spring brings the birth of lambs – so too does the Boris Johnson Covid-19 strategy flail and collapse, flail and collapse. Just three weeks after Johnson was reportedly planning a “publicity campaign” telling workers to return to the office or “risk losing [their] job”, they are now instructed to work from home again. As a second wave approaches, just as during the initial lockdown in March, those with jobs where remote working is impossible are given very little in the way of consolation. Health workers are, I suppose, offered some insipid and showy thanks even as they beg for appropriate protections and have budgets slashed, but those working in construction and factories and on crowded shop floors have been queasily disregarded. The risk that such environments pose is undeniable, but the theory goes that if a worker develops symptoms or otherwise suspects they may be infected, they will declare as much and then voluntarily self-isolate for two weeks or until they receive a negative test result.
This would be a workable (if imperfect) approach if it wasn’t rendered impossible by the existence of a large class of precarious workers without sick pay or savings, who have only one pay cheque separating them from personal disaster. It is a very foolish expectation that a person who lives in or on the edge of poverty would voluntarily obliterate their income on account of the mere suspicion of illness, or even if they were definitively ill. Many people who have no money will keep working until they are physically unable to do so, because they have no other option. It isn’t through ignorance of risk that this takes place, but rather the weighting of potential risk against the guaranteed fact that if work stops, life stops: rent goes unpaid, meals uneaten.
This scenario is received incredulously by some because they can’t imagine having no options. They can’t imagine suspecting they might have Covid-19 and going to work anyway. They see this as monstrously selfish behaviour, unable to truly believe that people exist who do not have protections of any kind. It’s hard for people born with money to accept that life can stop in this manner: for them, the whole thing tends to rumble on with pleasing and natural fluidity. There is a complex network of guarantees that underwrites the life of any moneyed person, or even the merely comfortable. It isn’t that such people don’t experience disaster and crises too, but that when they do, there are many things in place to ensure that the whole project of living doesn’t collapse.
Until a few years ago, I made little more than half the annual London living wage, and I briefly dated a man who was unable to accept the fact that when I ran out of money, I had no money. One evening, I was meant to get the Tube to see him after I finished work, but when I went to tap in, my card was declined, some direct debit having come out unexpectedly, and I called to let him know that I couldn’t come over any more. “What?” he said. “Just transfer some money!” He couldn’t compute that there was no other money – no secondary, back-up fund that I dipped into when the real stuff ran out. While all this was arduous and draining and I was perpetually late with rent, I always knew I was fine. I knew that I could borrow fifty quid here and there from my dad, my best friend, from somebody or other. I certainly never worried I would be homeless or hungry, even when I had completely run out of money.
These privileges are to do with money, but are also about background, context, social capital. That we have the comforts we have, and that others have not only less but almost nothing, is a fact so staggeringly unfair it’s more or less impossible genuinely, permanently to accept it. The man I dated was a particularly blunt example of that refusal, but we are all guilty of magical thinking when it comes to the plight of others.
Mariame Kaba, an American prison abolitionist, tweeted recently that conservative, pragmatic approaches to politics deliberately limit our imaginations: “Your desires for something better are being shrunken every single minute… I feel continuously sad and furious about the deliberate suffocation of people’s aspirations. People who constantly scream about *realism* and try to foreclose even *THINKING* about something else, something different than the current order. This suffocation is spirit-murder.”
The bloody desire to quash even the ability to imagine different futures is increasingly and worryingly apparent in these strange, panicked times. The Department for Education lately released guidelines declaring the “desire to abolish or overthrow… capitalism” an “extreme political stance”, alongside the use of anti-Semitic language. When it comes to economic and social inequalities, conservative thinking often offers “life is unfair” as a rebuttal. That it is not technically impossible for a child born with every disadvantage to graft their way to success under capitalism is held up as proof that we must accept the current state of things, that they work, and that they must always be as they are now. In fact, life itself – and by this I mean the lineaments of what is essential and perpetual in life, rather than the way we happen to live – is completely fair, in that every living being will experience loss and pain, and that both will fall upon us in chaotic and unplanned and unstrategised quantities.
The unfairness that people refer to when they make light of economic inequalities, or of racial profiling in employment practices, however, is not chaotic or unplanned. It isn’t a natural or inevitable unfairness, a quirk of nature. It’s an unnecessary one, and a changeable one, if we can bring ourselves to believe it exists.
This article appears in the 30 Sep 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the Union