Protecting Life, Interrogating Death, Seeking Truth
Inquests offer the only opportunity for bereaved families to hear and cross-examine evidence concerning the context in which their loved one died. The Chief Coroner’s guidance on Covid-19 deaths advises against inquests investigating the significance of national policies and their implementation, concentrating only on the ‘facts’ of each death. In fact, there is no obligation on care homes or hospitals to report Covid deaths to the Coroner nor to hold inquests. Reflecting on the ground-breaking Hillsborough Inquests, 2014-2016 and the unprecedented jury findings at the inquest into the prison death of Joseph Rainey in Northern Ireland (2020), this talk focuses on bereaved families’ ‘right to know’, and have examined, the full circumstances and wider context in which their loved ones died.
Phil Scraton is Professor Emeritus in the School of Law, Queen’s University, Belfast. Widely published, his books include: In the Arms of the Law – Coroners’ Inquests and Deaths in Custody (with Kathryn Chadwick); The Violence of Incarceration (with Jude McCulloch); Power, Conflict and Criminalisation; Hillsborough The Truth. From 2010 he led the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s research, was principal author of its 2012 Report, Hillsborough and was seconded to the families’ legal teams throughout the 2014-2016 inquests. In 2018, with Rebecca Scott Bray, he co-convened the University of Sydney’s research programme on coroners’ inquests into deaths in custody and is co-investigator for the Irish Council of Civil Liberties’ project Deaths in Contested Circumstances and Coroners’ Inquests. In 2016 he was awarded the Freedom of the City of Liverpool.
The following piece was written a few weeks ago for inclusion in a CONCEPT Covid-19 special. Its opening is overtaken by events. As I write the unlocking of restrictions here on Crete gathers pace. Yet tension prevails. We wish to mingle, but with whom? We were safe on our island. We need tourism to survive, but do we fear the tourists? More than ever we need philanthropy, a love for our fellow human beings, solidarity not charity, but the virus in the hands of the powerful feeds misanthropy and xenophobia. I’ll try to tangle with this dilemma in the next week or so and pursue my call for resistance to either ‘business as usual or a ‘new normal’ – within and without of work
A virus-created radical moment: Not to be missed?
I am sitting in splendid isolation on a lush hillside above a Cretan village, where even the patriarchal kafeneio is closed. Outside its shuttered face a group of old men sit, less than socially distant, defying spasmodic police surveillance. A few kilometres away people queue obediently outside the supermarket, clutching in their plastic gloved hands the required Out-of-Home pass and their ID. There are health concerns, even though the island of 650,000 souls has precious few Covid-19 cases and only one death, but such melancholia is hardly new. Crete is awash with chemists, testing one’s blood pressure a daily routine. Notwithstanding the benefits of the Mediterranean diet it’s tempting to note that Hippocrates hailed from hereabouts and that hypochondria stems from Ancient Greek.
There is real fear, though not so much of the virus per se but of what lies ahead. As I write the island is closed for business. The tourism-oiled life blood of the local economy congeals. With cafes, tavernas, hotels, even beaches, empty of purpose, unemployment and debt soars. The Orthrus-headed threat of poverty and hunger hangs in the air. The questions on everybody’s lips are ‘when will this end?’ and ‘will we, do we, want to return to normal?’ At this moment, if assuredly we are not all in this together, from capitalist to peasant, humanity faces a fragile future.
For now, it’s ironically common-place for commentators to write that the neoliberal obsession with the free market and the self-centred individual has been utterly exposed. In this profound social crisis society turns to the public, not the private sector. Society turns to the nurse, not the entrepreneur. Capitalism’s endless pursuit of profit and growth is shown to be at odds with the common good and at odds with Nature itself
Against this tumultuous backcloth what are the alternatives as and when the virus loosens its grip? Three perhaps stand out on the grand canvas.
I. Despite the rhetoric that this is impossible, there will be an almost irresistible desire to return to normal. Even though this sordid ‘business as usual’ has created widening inequality – the world’s richest 1% have more than twice as much as 6.9 billion people – and life-threatening climate change.
2. And if, as is likely, this return to the status quo fails amidst what is speculated to be a second Great Depression of recession and austerity, there is the ever-present danger, as we bow to increased surveillance and policing, that an authoritarian, xenophobic politics with strong men at its helm moves to centre stage.
3. The third possibility depends on us. Are we able to build afresh on the recognition that we are essential; that our labour is the bedrock of society? Are we able to hold onto our renewed community experience of mutual aid and solidarity?
To wonder if the latter is possible brings us inexorably to the matter of consciousness. Do the circumstances thrust upon us herald the fulfilment of the revolutionary dream, the emergence of a people, conscious of themselves as the creators of history? Half a century ago as Cornelius Castoriadis revealed presciently neoliberalism’s moneyed ‘meaninglessness’, he posed the question, “to what extent does the contemporary situation give birth in people the desire and capacity to create a free and just society?”
Speaking of which brings me to the part that youth and community workers might play in the renaissance of collective, reflective solidarity. At its best, the radical tradition contesting the ideological space to be found within our practice has been founded on critical conversations and supportive relationships through which we are as much educated as those we aspire to educate. This is a dialogue riven with moments of intimate democracy, listening to one another, as the foundation of an authentic public democracy.
Alas, over the last 40 years we have been on the retreat. The agenda of social conformity has been strengthened immeasurably by the imposition of prescribed, predictable targets and outcomes, aimed at manufacturing the compliant and resilient individual. Pressured practitioners have sought to make the best of a bad job. However, certainly in England, a generation of workers in their acceptance of the planned interventions demanded from above have cooperated with ‘formalising the informal’. For my part, the recuperation by neoliberalism of even radical elements in our practice is symbolised by the now ritual abuse on all sides of the notion of empowerment, whereby we accept without demur the absurdity that the powerless can be empowered by the powerful.
In closing, I’ll propose that, as we return to work beyond the crisis, there is a fleeting, unmissable chance to revive our commitment to an open-ended, emancipatory dialogue with young people and the community. It will mean challenging, resisting a return to the managerialist implementation of imposed norms and expectations, the catechism of ‘impact’. Such resistance will necessitate the urgent renewal of our collective capacity in the workplace, through workers’ self-organisation and the trade unions.
At the risk of being melodramatic, this unexpected rebuke of Capitalism’s arrogance and excess marks an opening we cannot afford to let slip by. Surely, we cannot wash our hands of, keep our distance from, deny this once in a lifetime moment to turn the tide of history.
To find out more about my love of Cornelius Castoriadis see as a starter.
I’m pleased and humbled to have an article in this special Covid-19 issue of CONCEPT. In the next few days I hope to return to and extend the argument to be found therein, summed up in the final sentence.
Surely, we cannot wash our hands of, keep our distance from, deny this once in a lifetime moment to turn the tide of history
Leave this aside the issue as ever is rich in its diversity of themes and in its range of practitioners. Guided by Mae Shaw’s editorial I hope very much that you will dip into its critical contents.
Editorial – Mae Shaw
This is the first time we have published a supplementary issue of Concept in our almost 30-year history. We were first motivated by a ‘call for solidarity’ from Luke Campbell (in this issue), drawing on his work with a local community action network since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis. We hastily set to, seeking contributions from organisations and individuals we thought may be interesting, or interested to respond. It was not intended to be representative of the field of practice; more of a snapshot. We are aware that alongside a general sense of dislocation at this grim and demanding time, there is also alarming evidence of differential circumstances and experiences on the ground. We hoped to capture some of this for our readers, and to offer a modest opportunity to record, reflect, express, share and, maybe even generate some small sense of solidarity, needed now more than ever. The response has been very encouraging, and the number of contributions has grown beyond our original estimate.
The now ubiquitous claim that ‘we are all in this together’ may be accurate in some general existential sense, but the contributions here demonstrate how existing social and material inequalities are reproduced and heightened in this catastrophe. As many of the articles illustrate, some people are stuck at home, while other people are stuck without homes. Susie Dalton highlights how home can be the most dangerous place for some women, while John Player argues that a decent home has become an almost hopeless aspiration for many homeless people in Scotland today. For some young carers, as Mel Aitken shows, home can be both a prison and a place of protection and affection in a time of lockdown, with exhausting personal consequences. In the South African context, where inequalities of class, race and gender are more endemic and visible, Astrid von Kotze demonstrates how the residual geography of apartheid dictates the parameters of what ‘home’ means in practice, with poor black people (women in particular) trying to mitigate the greatest threats from the virus in impossible conditions.
A matter of increasing and widespread concern is the extent to which ‘vulnerability’ is becoming a shorthand for lack of personal agency for some. George Lamb, disability rights activist, is concerned about the ways in which the current ‘vulnerability’ script may undo the gains made by the disability movement in their decades-long struggle for rights, not charity, denying the voices of disabled people at this critical time. Some of the same concerns about reconstituting forms of dependency, which have been so strenuously resisted in recent years, are emerging in relation to the implicit ‘ageism’ reflected in much public health policy. Emphasising the continuing agency of ‘vulnerable’ people needs to be a primary concern for practitioners in this field. In any case, if this crisis has taught us one very useful human lesson, it is that we are all profoundly vulnerable!
Making donations and volunteering to help others in respectful ways are important forms of agency, but so too is the capacity to question, and to accept that there will be contradictions. In struggling to make sense of the current reality, and using online resources to meet with like-minded others, Anne O’Donnell is rediscovering the ‘healing’ power of theory: the therapeutic properties of thinking, understanding, grasping, revisiting longstanding analytical frameworks and assessing the value of new ones. What’s more, as Lisa Rigby makes clear, this kind of critical awareness can creatively ‘bleed’ into other interrelated spheres which are not at present included sufficiently in public discourse: ‘…. public/private finance, international affairs, and ideas about health, including around the use of illicit drugs’.
Fear and growing anger about the cumulative effects of long-term austerity on the ability of public services to respond to crisis are matched by growing apprehension about the future of precious public assets. Callum McGregor is concerned that the now commonplace collective displays of ‘symbolic solidarity’ for ‘frontline’ workers do not inadvertently undermine a model of genuine ‘civic solidarity’ which expresses a selective determination to secure more equitable rights and rewards mediated through a democratic state polity. In the midst of such sincere outpouring of public goodwill, it can seem churlish to remind people that the British National Health Service is a tax-funded public service, not a charity – and certainly not a business. There will undoubtedly be attempts in due course to depoliticise this crisis, to reinforce rather than challenge the current ideological orthodoxy. But there will also undoubtedly be attempts to seize the crisis as an urgent educational opportunity; as a warning of even worse things to come unless that ideological orthodoxy is seriously challenged.
The immensely unequal distribution of private goods, gained at the expense of the wider public good, may become even more transparent as vast inequalities of wealth and privilege are laid bare. Tony Taylor believes that neoliberal fetishism of the free market and the sovereign individual has been fatally wounded; found completely inadequate to the demands of the current crisis, as ‘society turns to the nurse, not the entrepreneur’. At the same time, and depending on its severity, the crisis may force a fundamental rethink of what is a reasonable way to inhabit the planet, and the economic and social relations which sustain or destroy it.
Many of the contributions here draw attention to the power of community (in all its ambivalence), and to the creativity, empathy, reciprocity and mutuality inherent in human beings which can be either fostered or squandered. The question is how this critical and fearful rupture can generate a genuine and vibrant curriculum for educational work and action with communities of place, identity and interest. As Arundhati Roy rightly observes ‘Nothing could be worse than a return to normality’! We all look forward to looking back on this benighted time sooner rather than later. In the meantime, if you want to contribute to this discussion, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Towards the end of a strange May Day, bereft of rallies and demonstrations, I’m posting simply the montage, my dear ‘wooly Marxist’ friend Sue Atkins has put together. However I’m hoping to follow it up with some thoughts provoked by a special Covid-19 issue of CONCEPT, the Scottish Community Education journal, especially around how might resist a return to the normal, new or old.
However in Athens the Greek Communist Party [KKE] under the banner of its trade union, PAME, protested outside the Greek Parliament today with social distancing and masks in an act of flagrant, yet disciplined and heart-warming disobedience. Let me be clear over the years the official Communist Parties have hardly been my best mates, but respect when it is due. The party measured out precisely the necessary social distancing, putting the police and government on the back foot. In the end the state and its armed body decided to keep its distance.