A virus-created radical moment: Not to be missed?

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.

Crete’s splendid isolation

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?”

A recently discovered street sign in memory of Castoriadis Cornelius [Greek philosopher]. Thanks to David Curtis and Noelle McAfee.

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.

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To find out more about my love of Cornelius Castoriadis see as a starter.

https://chattingcritically.com/2019/12/29/towards-personal-social-and-political-autonomy-revisiting-cornelius-castoriadis/

2 thoughts on “A virus-created radical moment: Not to be missed?

  1. Dave Backwith

    While I agree with the thrust of Tony’s thoughtful post, I wonder if there is not another (4th) alternative – and perhaps one that is gathering momentum?

    Before I get to that, just to say it seems to me that the first option, a return to neo-liberal ‘business as usual’, is quite possible, if not probable. The recovery from the 2008 financial crash demonstrated how resilient and flexible a beast capitalism is. Austerity was presented as the only option; then, as now, we were told we were ‘all in it together’ and we got a decade of growing inequality, grinding poverty and (in England) perhaps as many as 130,000 premature deaths.

    The UK government’s coronavirus ‘strategy’ has been shambolic, riven with ineptitude, disregard for the most vulnerable, and dishonesty. To a large extent they’ve got away with this. Their poll ratings have held up, and Boris Johnson’s brush with death seems to have bought him sympathy and tolerance. Even so there are signs that the worm is beginning to turn, with growing criticism of government policies, including everything from the lack of protective gear for health and social care workers, to the blatant lies about testing, and now the confusion over easing the lockdown. In parliament, Keir Starmer seems to be getting the better of Johnson and Matt Hancock’s response to Rosena Allin-Khan’s point about avoidable deaths suggests the Health Secretary, at least, is rattled.

    It’s anyone’s guess how the Corvid-19 crisis will pan out but it seems possible that, in the UK and hopefully elsewhere, a popular opposition will emerge with a credible critique, not only of the government’s incompetence but one that sees much of that as flowing from neo-liberal ideology. The initial ‘herd immunity’ strategy, based on letting people become infected, and many of them dying, was not just stupid it was also of a piece with right-wing opposition to state intervention.

    This where my fourth alternative comes in. If there were such an opposition isn’t it likely that the ‘leadership’ would adopt policies of social reform rather than either a return to ‘business as usual’ or a society built from the bottom up, based on ‘community experience of mutual aid and solidarity’? Mutual aid and solidarity are vital for preventing the rehabilitation of neo-liberalism but is it strong enough to prevent capitalism reasserting itself, albeit with a friendlier face? It was a different crisis in different times but in response to the Great Depression of the 1930s even the USA, perhaps the most nakedly rapacious capitalist state, adopted a radical New Deal. The New Deal included many unprecedented social reforms but its function, at root, was to preserve capitalism, not replace it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Tony Taylor

    Dave,

    I can see there is more than a hint of revolutionary romanticism in the way I frame my third option, together with the rhetorical flourish at the end about ‘turning the tide of history? Hyperbole aside, I have though long given up on a Winter Palace moment, a storming of the barricades in the final assault on the capitalist class. This is not to say I’ve given up on the possibility of life beyond capitalism. To do so seems to sign humanity’s death warrant.

    I do think capitalism is in a deep mess. Classically it is bedevilled by its own contradictions. To take but two examples, firstly, an influential fraction of the capitalist class has abandoned future investment. They sit on their assets, see them prosper and bunker down for the coming Armageddon. They’ve given up, even on the desire to master the planet in their own interests. Secondly, as Paul Mason suggests the tension between the limitless proliferation of knowledge today and the limited ownership of knowledge is an irreconcilable dilemma. The arrival of Artificial Intelligence raises all manner of questions for the issues of employment and leisure. It holds out the prospect of time for the oppressed and exploited to live!

    Yet, as ever, these tensions do not signal the end of capitalism. I’m saying nothing that is new in arguing that a future beyond greed depends on our desire to escape its imaginary, its imposed sense of what is normal and necessary. Thus when I say the future is down to us I envisage all manner of ways in which we might, very much might get on with it. Resisting neoliberal ideology, given its impact on all corners of our existence, has and will continue to emerge in the home, in the school, in the workplace, on the streets; within campaigns around domestic violence, mental health, climate change, immigration and much more. It may indeed involve support for a progressive alliance around a Green New Deal with its echoes of Roosevelt in the 1930s. If the radicalisation of the Labour Party had not been thwarted from within and without might it have been the vehicle for the friendly face of capitalism, as Dave aptly puts it.

    My thoughts are of course in danger of being platitudes, trotted out as a matter of course with no real grip on reality. My fragile contention is to wonder whether the lockdown has shifted the circumstances sufficiently to mean that the renaissance of mutual aid, the recognition of the essential need for public services and the realisation that humanity is not a resource to be mined for profit, that all these have legs.

    To pursue the line I take in my original piece I would despair if youth and community workers continuing and returning to work reverted to ‘business as usual’. If they went back to being told what to do by their management. If they didn’t challenge the imposition of outcomes and targets from above upon their practice. If they didn’t allow that the elevated status given in recent years to the young entrepreneur is at odds with the needs of society. If they didn’t see that failing to stand up for yourself is hardly a convincing example to set if you are seriously into political education. Hence I contend that a bottom-line response on a collective return to work down the line is a revival of worker’s self-organisation, meeting without permission in the cafe or pub, and of the independent, critical trade union branch. At its heart is a rejection of self-centred individualism and an impassioned embrace of the common good.

    Like

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