I was perplexed from the outset at what seemed to be the absence of debate and the utter lack of opposition to the demanded closures of children’s and young people’s provision – from playgrounds through schools and youth facilities to universities. I am being diplomatic. I was pissed off and angry. It was plain that such draconian, disproportionate action would be deeply damaging. The belated acknowledgement in the summer of 2021 that the lockdown was creating serious mental health issues for the younger generation, crocodile tears, merely confirmed my angst. Then, a humble breath taken, I recognised it was easy for me to be so moved. If I was still a practising youth worker. teacher or lecturer what would I have done during the last two years?
Towards the end of the piece I commented:
Certainly in the coming weeks, as the pandemic narrative unravels, it would be revealing to hear the thoughts of UK youth workers, teachers and lecturers about their sense of the impact upon children and young people, upon themselves of the two years lost.
Something unexpected happened in Spring and Summer of 2020. I found myself standing apart from my colleagues. I could understand that in the initial stages of the pandemic, due to the particular threat that Covid posed to the elderly, the government’s decision had been to focus on the protection of older members of the population. But as the weeks wore on and I imagined the harm being done to children across the country, informed both by my training and my professional experience, it was clear to me that too much weight was being focussed on the protection of adults at the enormous expense of the less obvious (but more long-term) damage to the future and well-being of children and young people. And yet those who I would expect to be my natural allies due to shared knowledge and experience remained silent. There was no national, grown-up discussion anywhere about how we might balance the need to protect the most vulnerable from Covid with the interests of the young, and how we could remain faithful to our national commitment to children’s best interests being paramount. Any attempt to introduce such discussion was met with derision and accusations of moral decrepitude. To my astonishment, this was also the case on professional online forums, where it became increasingly difficult to raise concerns. It seemed to me that psychologists, who describe themselves as ‘scientist-practitioners’, should be asking serious questions about society-wide decisions to impose restrictions and mandates that would inevitably harm children and young people (and other vulnerable groups). At the very least, they should all be calling for a broader discussion, which they would be uniquely placed to inform, and at best, an extremely high bar (in terms of cost-benefit analysis) for the introduction of such measures. Yet the general view amongst those working with children and young people – and the official view of most professional bodies including my own – was that the moral responsibility of child professionals was to support government policy (at whatever cost to society and whilst asking no questions – or so it seemed to me) and then to work to mitigate the impact on mental or physical health. The alternative view – that policies that kept children out of schools, cut them off from families and friends, kept them from participating in outdoor sports, normal play, activity and socialising and prevented them from accessing healthcare and other support services should not be in place at all – was anathema. This was disturbing and confusing. I could not understand how, given the values and knowledge we had all shared before March 2020, this had come about.
We always knew what circumstances and experiences children needed in order to thrive, to be physically well and to be mentally healthy, and we knew that the unprecedented social experiment that took place from March 2020 deprived them of many of these things and would put many at risk of serious harm. The collateral damage outlined in all these studies and reports could have been foreseen and warned against by many more child professionals than ever spoke out. In moving into the post-pandemic era, it is essential that we continue to speak of these harms, to measure and describe them and to share these findings with our colleagues and the general public. We need to welcome into the discussion the concerns of many people who, at the time, were persuaded that reduced transmission of Covid trumped everything else, including the safety and mental and physical health of children and young people. It would be good to reach a point where there is full acknowledgement of the harms caused and the catastrophic errors made that led to them. Perhaps the Covid Inquiry will lead society to ask itself how we ever got to a point where children and young people were routinely subjected to harmful and unevidenced interventions and restrictions. As we support recovery, all those working with children and those in government must re-commit to the principles of the UN Convention for the Rights of the Child. And we must ensure that we never subject a generation of children to such experiences ever again.
Speaking purely of youth workers, managers and lecturers, fond of proclaiming themselves to be critical practitioners par excellence, to what extent at a local, regional and national level are they coming together to consider what has been going on over the pandemic years? To what extent are they encouraging young people to discuss the rights and wrongs of the authoritarian clampdown on their lives? Or is the profession pretending the last two years never happened? Such collective myopia bodes ill for a future, within which an emboldened ruling class is confident that its diktat will be fearfully obeyed and that amongst its messengers of anxiety will be indeed youth workers, managers and lecturers.
Across the duration of the ‘pandemic as I have broken out of my own ‘Leftie’ bubble I have discovered a rich range of alternative opinions and analyses. In doing so I don’t think I have abandoned a fundamental commitment to the political struggle for individual, social and political autonomy, the creation of a society, overseen by each of us in concert with one another. However, some of the most stimulating conversations I have entered into have been with liberals and indeed libertarians of a Right-wing hue. Inevitably we have disagreed, often deeply but with a degree of respect. Thankfully voices of left-libertarianism have also soothed my troubled mind but, in truth, not that many. As far as the authoritarian Left from the International Committee of the Fourth International via the Morning Star to the Labour Party is concerned, such a pluralist desire to listen and converse rather than preach in an elevated state of certitude and ‘true’ consciousness is nothing but a sign of dithering weakness and, of course, the curse of ‘false’ consciousness.
Thus, perhaps bloody-mindedly, I shall draw your eyes in the coming weeks to writers from across the political spectrum, who, I think, are worthy of your critical attention.
The first of these is a certain Charles Eisenstein, who I had never heard of a few months ago. Since back in the early 70s and my political awakening I’ve always hated the sloppy and vindictive caricature of those we disagree with as being ‘thick’ and stupid. It remains such a hopeless and arrogant perspective. Charles takes up the question in ‘Divide, Conquer; Unite, Heal’
The media and social media are profuse with hateful sentiments about how the unvaccinated deserve to die, should be denied medical care, are immoral, ignorant, narcissistic, sociopathic, and so on.
I am sorry to observe hate on the other side of the vaccine divide too. Sometimes I see in health freedom communities half-hopeful, gloating posts about how the vaccinated will someday wail and gnash their teeth in abject regret when mass vaccine-induced death shows them the error of their ways. Monikers like “sheeple,” “normies,” and “vaxtards” play into the most dangerous controller agenda of all—to divide and conquer by fostering internecine hatred.
If we who oppose vaccine mandates wish to live in a world based on dignity, we should do everything we can to affirm the dignity of all human beings. By dehumanizing those with opposing views, we reinforce the same pattern that dehumanizes ourselves, the dissidents.
Basically, whether deliberately or not, a situation has been engineered to dispose the public toward division. It is an old formula: Enemies are among us! The unclean put us all at risk! The heretics will bring the wrath of God upon us all!
Let us recognize that ancient formula and how closely the dominant Covid narrative conforms to it. Is that conformity just a coincidence? Were past incitements mere propaganda and hysteria-mongering, but this time the heretics really do put us all at risk? At the very least, we should recognize with grave suspicion any incitement to hatred. We the human family have fallen for that trick so many many times before.
“There will be 500,000 deaths in the UK.” Neil Ferguson, Imperial College. March 16, 2020
“The perceived level of threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent. using hard-hitting emotional messaging.” SAGE [SPI-B]. March 22, 2020
“The coronavirus is the biggest threat this country has faced for decades. All over the world, we are seeing the devastating impact of this invisible killer. From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home.” Boris Johnson, March 23, 2020
These three utterances capture the conscious hyperbole and calculated cynicism inherent in the outpourings of both politicians and their hand-picked experts at the beginning of 2020. Despite the pronouncements of the World Health Organisation [WHO] and Patrick Vallance, the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor [March 13, 2020], ‘a very mild illness for nearly all of us’, the die was cast. The people of the UK, man, woman and even child, were to be frightened, terrorised. That they knew little of what they should be afeard was by the by. The people were deemed too ignorant to understand. The democratic notion that they should be informed and decide upon the appropriate response, nothing but absurd. This was war and only the High Command could possibly know what was best.
“Is there any means known more effective than war, assuming you wish to alter the life of an entire people?” — minutes of the Carnegie Foundation, 1908.
As for the enemy, the virus did not play fair. It could not be bombed, or even. so it proved. vaccinated out of existence. The virus itself was irritated by the abstract name by which it was designated, COVID-19, but pleased as its offspring were graced with Greek epithets, Alpha, Beta, Delta. How long might this go on – even unto Zita? In truth, the virus doubted such a historic possibility. Its impact upon the mass of unfortunates who crossed its path was in the main little out of the ordinary – headache, cough, temperature, tiredness, lack of taste, the shivers if badly affected, hardly anything if not. Its forefathers and mothers had inflicted much the same. In truth the virus felt a mite guilty, its conscience pricked. Here, there and everywhere, in the end, COVID-19 was primarily a deathly problem for the old and/or vulnerable with underlying complications. The virus thought they were too easy a target for a pathogen, said to be an existential threat to humanity.
In Greece, where I live, as of November 1, 52 deaths were recorded in the last 24 hours, bringing the overall total of pandemic victims to 15,990. Of these, 95.4% had an underlying condition and/or were aged 70 or over. The official percentage figure is typical across Europe . It is time to put aside my personalization of the virus. Not least because treating the virus as a sentient being has been a staple throughout the mainstream narrative. The virus, it is said, has closed schools, youth groups and playgrounds, pubs and restaurants, parks and gyms. Indeed in its cunning, it leaves you alone when dining, mask set aside but stalks you to the toilet if you forget the face covering. For the virus is struck dumb in the face of masks, worn properly or otherwise, rendered impotent. Why this plastic face cloth should warn off the virus is irretrievably woven into the mythology of the pandemic. Evidence for its efficacy is thin on the ground – see Part Four of this rant. However the manufactured tension between the masked and the maskless, the good and the bad, the obedient and disobedient, the responsible and irresponsible has been deeply divisive. It has turned us against each other, serving to distract our attention from those who are responsible for the 18-month worth of imposed interventions into our daily existence. Divide and rule so the old saying goes. As I write the unvaccinated in Greece are being denied access indoors to kafenia and tavernas, the beating heart of community life.
All of which returns us into the arrogant hands of the medical and behavioural experts gathered together in March 2020. Pompously they ignored the fundamental premise of a holistic public health policy. This held that when faced with a specific health threat the response must, at one and the same time, deal with the particular whilst taking full account of any actions taken upon the general health of society as a whole. The consequences of this skewed strategy – the impact upon the mental health of so many people, not least children, to take but one example – was criminally ignored until the last few months. I must confess to a distaste for the crocodile tears shed lately. Anyone remotely in touch with the worlds of formal and informal education, health and social care, knew full well that lockdown would be harmful for the younger generation.
No matter, the first national press conference set the scene, a nervous Prime Minister, deprived of buffoonery, flanked by his experts and following an ignorant, one-sided notion of the Science, warned us of catastrophe if we did not do as we were told. The assembled press concurred. These journalists, an embarrassment to their profession, the stenographers of our times, nodded and took dictation. Touching their forelock they asked the meek and mildest of questions. Criticism, even curiosity was frowned upon. The next morning the mainstream media from the Sun to the Guardian shared the shorthand and replicated in unison the government’s propaganda. Labour, desiring to prove its conservative credentials, to be tougher than tough on the virus, parroted the line.
On what you might regard as a flimsy personal aside, the order to stay at home didn’t seem quite right to me. Growing up as a child in the 1950s, Doctor Cull, the community’s and my family’s faithful GP insisted that when I had a cold I should get as much fresh air as possible. Later, in my teens, given my dad worked down the pit, I went with him several times to the Miners’ Convalescent Home in Southport. There we would push many a collier with respiratory problems along the seafront and the length of the magnificent prom. Taken away from the cramped terraced houses of their birth the bracing air was seen as vital to their recovery.
As for the behaviourist vanguard leading the fight, knowing that the virus was nowhere near lethal for the majority, it determined that a marketing strategy was required. The plague needed to be advertised. In the absence of dead bodies on the streets, people might well not pay sufficient notice. The relentless brainwashing was set in motion. The slogans abounded, appealing to a smug sanctity.
STAY HOME, PROTECT THE NHS, SAVE LIVES PROTECT YOUR LOVED ONES I WASH MY HANDS TO PROTECT MY NAN I WASH MY HANDS TO PROTECT MY FAMILY I WEAR A FACE-COVERING TO PROTECT MY MATES I MAKE SPACE TO PROTECT YOU
And, almost criminal in their lack of ethical concern.
IF YOU DO GO OUT YOU CAN SPREAD IT. PEOPLE WILL DIE DON’T KILL GRANNY CORONAVIRUS. ANYONE CAN GET IT. ANYONE CAN SPREAD IT DON’T MEET UP WITH MATES. HANGING ABOUT IN PARKS COULD KILL
Without a doubt, these formulaic sound-bites marked young people’s cards in a time-honoured way. If they met in the park or wherever any rise in cases was down to their self-centred insubordination.
When it comes to assessing the ups and downs of the pandemic in statistical terms the mainstream media know only the language of spikes and surges. Nothing is contextualised. The Guardian, once the go-to bastion of liberal, progressive, pluralist journalism carries a daily banner indicating cases, hospitalisations and deaths. These categories are only revelatory if they are broken down. This is never the case. To do so would uncover all manner of inconsistency and distortion. Meanwhile, the Guardian eschews any idea that it should promote a critical exchange between differing analyses of the pandemic predicament. Rather it exudes sneering scorn for any departure from COVID-19 orthodoxy. It sinks to the level of the tabloids in running anecdotes, dripping with an ‘I told you so’ self-righteousness – ‘Anti-vaxxer, dies from Covid’ and ‘Anonymous, agonising parent says her child was bullied at school for having the vaccine.’ On the global scale, it ran in April with headlines such as ‘The system has collapsed’: India’s descent into Covid hell’ accompanied by stock photos of burning pyres of the dead. In fact, the images reflected only the traditional Hindu response to the end of mortality. After two days the Guardian conspicuously forgot about India. The sub-continent’s purpose was served.
The Guardian, the BBC and all profess not a word about the suppression of competing interpretations of the pandemic offered up by a diversity of alternative media sources. Evidently, anyone disputing the mainstream narrative, whatever their prestigious medical credentials or their biography of intellectual integrity is to be contemptuously dismissed as an anti-vaxxer or conspiracy theorist. It matters not that they are neither. The slander is sufficient. Depressingly, leading lights of the Left such as Owen Jones and Paul Mason define dissent as dangerous, even calling for the closing down of criticism. Meanwhile, the unelected, corporate arbiters of truth at Facebook or Google can censor any opinion at odds with the status quo without a questioning murmur. The Guardian, self-styled independent and investigative, remains silent. On April 23, 2020, OFCOM, the UK’s communications regulatory body issued the instruction that health claims contrary to the government’s policies should be perceived as harmful. The censorship is excused by the deeply contrary notion of ‘misinformation’. No such sense of contradiction can be found in the launch in the USA of Good Information Inc by ‘progressive’ billionaires Reid Hoffman, George Soros, and others. The public benefit corporation, led by former Democratic Party strategist, Tara McGowan will fund new media companies and efforts that cut through echo chambers with fact-based information. Presumably with a straight face and without a hint of doubt McGowan says that ‘the group’s goal in the next year is to raise more awareness about immediate solutions to counter disinformation before it spreads.
Embedding ‘Covid-safe’ behaviours into people’s everyday routines will require a coordinated programme to shape the financial, physical, and social infrastructure in the United Kingdom. Education, regulation, communications, and social marketing, and provision of resources will be required to ensure that all sections of society have the capability, opportunity, and motivation to enact the behaviours long term.[my emphasis]
Michie is quoted widely as stating in a June interview that face coverings and social distancing should become permanent. Much has been made of her four decades-long membership of the British Communist Party. For those of us with a communist disposition, inspired by the young Marx, by Pannekoek, by CLR James, by Castoriadis, by Kropotkin and Bakunin, the vision’s corruption by its all-too understandable connection with the parties of that name is always frustrating. In essence, she is a ‘soft’ Stalinist, a technocrat and social engineer, utterly comfortable with knowing what is best for us. Hers is a bureaucratic collectivism. It is of significance that, starved of the elixir of militancy and clutching at straws, the Left as a whole has been seduced by her top-down version of ‘nudged’ solidarity. The orchestrated Clap For Carers, the apparent widespread adoption of masking has been interpreted as a prefigurative philanthropic expression of class struggle. I am less than convinced. For my part, I have come across, amongst others, the seriously scared, the pragmatic, ‘best comply or I’ll be fined’ and the misanthropic maskaloholics, who see the worst in all of us. Perhaps I’m not seeing the house for the bricks but I’ve not detected much political energy in the compliant. If I get to Part Five I’ll try to tangle with the crucial issues of what we might mean in this tumult by notions of solidarity and resistance.
Michie’s report follows the contemporary mantra ‘that till everyone is safe no one is safe’, which begs more than a few questions. For example, is it possible to be truly alive and fearful of existence? The goal though is to render the desired risk-free behaviour Normal, Easy, Attractive and Routine [NEAR]. There is much fashionable, shallow talk in the report of co-creation and co-production but only if you agree to the behavioural necessities in advance. In reality, the strategy will be delivered through a partnership between the state and corporations, who will deliver and monitor the desired changes in our individual and collective behaviour.
Susan Michie’s politics and ambitions are in tune with the desires of the Great Reset I touched on in Part One of these musings – the passage towards a global-led technocratic and surveillance capitalism. I have little doubt she supports the proposal that some form of global governance has to be achieved, a medium of control requiring ‘scientific’ regulation and a central role for experts. I have every expectation that she will be invited to speak about her research at the next Davos summit.
As I pen the last few words of this cry of concern about the insidious and insistent influence of behaviourism on our lives, the mainstream media continues to collude with its compulsory agenda of anxiety, After all, during the pandemic, the UK government has become its primary source of funding, hand in hand with Big Pharma sponsorship. Once more balanced reporting about the ‘experimental’ vaccines is shunned. In short the media’s unquestioning support for a vaccination programme from almost cradle to grave serves to deepen the divide between the vaccinated and unvaccinated, the latter collapsed into the reprehensible, even sinister category of ‘anti-vaxxers’. I will look more closely at the contentious medical issues raised in Part Four. For the moment the ‘othering’ of those, who for legitimate, informed and thoughtful reasons decline vaccination is deeply disturbing. The enemy is indeed within. It is one another. The SAGE group’s campaign of fear has willfully disregarded the British Psychological Society [BPS] code of ethics. In her formidable book, A State of Fear. Laura Dodsworth draws attention to Gary Sidley, a psychologist, who has challenged the BPS without success. In worrying about the tactics used by SAGE and the implications for our children and grandchildren, he says:
I don’t want to think about that really. It’s not a good place. There is something distinctive about using fear to get people to conform which is so distasteful and ethically unacceptable. Fear impacts on every aspect of our being.
In reality, behaviourism has no such qualms. It spreads its strangulating tentacles worldwide, confident in its certainty and immune to considerations of ethics or politics. It will serve authoritarianism, whatever its ideological hue. To take but the British incarnation the Behavioural Insights Team [BIT], affectionately or otherwise known as the Nudge Unit, initiated by David Cameron in 2010. According to Dodsworth, the Nudge Unit is ‘now a profit-making social purpose limited company with offices in London, Manchester, Paris, New York, Singapore, Sydney, Wellington and Toronto. It has run more than 750 projects and in 2019 alone worked in 31 countries. It has conducted over 1000 workshops for governments around the world, training 20,000 civil servants in behavioural insights.’
If anything it is the debilitating influence of these pseudo-scientific experts that ought to render us fearful rather than cheerful. They are nothing but the purveyors of official propaganda, the enemies of democracy and of the open, argumentative education that creates critical citizens.
By knowing how people think we can make it easier for them to choose what is best for them their families and Society [Thaler and Sunstein  ‘Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness]]
.We are governed, our minds are moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”
― Edward Bernays, Propaganda, 1928
A passionate riposte is demanded. Bernays’ rationalisation of the status quo refused. We will not be moulded and manipulated. We reject their assumed authority. We are not puppets, the playthings of the powerful. We will decide together in questioning dialogue with one another, what is best for us, our families and society. We commit ourselves to the struggle for an authentic democracy.
[Part Four will examine the medical evidence, whilst Part Five will explore in relation to the pandemic, the slide to authoritarianism and the shift to technocratic capitalism the questions of agency and resistance.]
In looking at the pandemic from an economic and political perspective I will proceed from what might be seen as the ABC of a critical analysis.
It is necessary to ground what we are looking at in the specific circumstances of the time.
In doing so we should be mindful also of the historical context if this seems pertinent and we might allow ourselves a speculation about the future if appropriate.
Additionally we must situate the phenomenon being scrutinised in the power relations of society. Cui bono? Whose interests are served by the way in which the object of our concern is characterized; by the way in which governments respond; by the way in which the people respond and so on?
My starting point is both simple and profound. The COVID-19 pandemic expresses first and foremost a crisis of capitalism’s health, much less so a crisis of our individual and collective physical health. I shall seek to give substance to this assertion which if true has enormous consequences both for our day-to-day existence and the ongoing struggle to create an autonomous and democratic society.
As for weighing up what’s going on in 2021, I’ll go back no further historically than the Second World War. I acknowledge the following sketch is rough and ready but it’s no more than a starter for a critical exchange of views.I wonder if such a proposal to be argumentative makes any sense in these dualist and censorious times.
The Social-Democratic Consensus
As the war came to an end the capitalist class was afeard. Talk of radical and revolutionary change hung in the acrid air. To retain their overall control they conceded the following:
An acceptance of the mixed economy, public and private cooperation, the nationalisation of basic utilities – water, electricity and so on.
An agreement that the leaders of the working class should have a seat at the table,
A recognition of the value of universal free education, social and health care.
However grudging, an allowance that the individual, the social and the political are inextricably intertwined.
The Neoliberal Fightback
Thirty years later influential sections of the ruling class were increasingly unhappy about the post-war social contract. Certainly, they were concerned to restore their share of the profits but were also deeply troubled by the growing pressure exerted by working-class militancy and the rise of the social movements demanding equality and justice. To retain their control they set in motion a counter-offensive. Its cornerstones were:
A rejection of the mixed economy and an explicit commitment to the primacy of the ‘free’ market as being the ultimate expression of what is good for everyone, rich or poor.
The utter necessity to undermine the autonomous organisation of the working class and the social movements, exemplified by the 1984/85 violent assault on the National Union of Mineworkers and the softer seduction of leaders and activists from the women’s, black and gay movements into managerial roles serving the neoliberal project.
The launch of an extraordinarily ambitious social engineering project designed to alter our very personalities; to privatise our existence, turning us in on ourselves as individuals and away from collective understandings of our situations; to see ourselves as passive consumers rather than active citizens.
Neoliberalism in crisis
The 2008 banking collapse served notice that the neoliberal economic model was broken. An opportunity of resistance beckoned. In the marginal world of youth work, I argued that we should reassert youth work as open, volatile and voluntary in opposition to the increasingly taken-for-granted closed, imposed, scripted version – youth work as intuition rather than youth work by numbers.
On the broader front, significant protest raged across the world but it was fragmented and largely contained. Nevertheless, the ruling class was shaken and stirred. Across the next decade, it was forced to act pragmatically, bailing out the banks with a massive infusion of ‘public’ money, whilst trying to work out a longer-term strategy that served its interests and maintained its power. The sticking plaster of quantitative easing hid the reality of unsustainable debt, the austerity-imposed immiseration of millions and the obscenity of the rich getting ever richer.
The United Nations poverty adviser, Philp Alston compared contemporary Tory policy to that which had created the workhouses of the nineteenth century. Research undertaken at the University of Bristol led by David Gordon illustrated that in the UK [population 69 million] 18 million people could not afford adequate housing; 12 million were too poor to engage in many forms of social activity; whilst 4 million children and adults were not fed properly. However, austerity was not too austere for the richest 1,000 in the UK, who increased their wealth by 60 billion pounds in a single year, 2017/18.
My guess is that from a ruling class perspective these themes have dominated their many extravagant meetings in snowy Swiss or sunny Mediterranean resorts.
A compelling shift to believing that some form of global governance had to be achieved. The vision would require ‘scientific’ regulation, a central role for experts and the obedience of the senior management representing compliant states.
Hindering such a sweeping move would be nation-states with notions of autonomy and democracy itself, even in its limited representative guise, along with dissident collectives and dangerous maverick individuals.
How might an alienated population, exhausted from work, deprived of work, retired from work be persuaded to go along with a major restructuring of social relations in favour of the powerful at the expense of the powerless?
Towards a global-led technocratic and surveillance capitalism
The reference group for grasping the strategic thinking of the powerful in a period of profound social, political and economic crisis is the World Economic Forum [WEF], which in its own words is “the global platform for public-private cooperation, of partnerships between businessmen, politicians, intellectuals and other leaders of society to define, discuss and advance key issues on the global agenda.” On board amongst many are Amazon, Google, Facebook, Barclays, Deutsche Bank, Morgan Chase, AstraZeneca, Pfizer, the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations – all powerhouses on the international scene – not to mention the World Health Organisation and International Monetary Fund.
Somewhat in passing I find it intriguing that to comment on the intimate social connections between these corporations is often now dismissed as a sign of that neurotic condition, ‘conspiritatis’. Similarly it is seen almost as a cheap trick to pursue the money, to scrutinise the financial chicanery of these shakers and movers. When, to my mind, these avenues of inquiry are the basis of investigative journalism and social research, of speaking truth to power, if you will forgive such a hackneyed phrase.
To return to the question of the elite’s thinking, sections within its ranks have long felt that some sort of global overview of the social, political and economic order was necessary. To take but one example, Zbigniew Brzezinski, later Jimmy Carter’s Security Advisor, in his 1970 book ‘Between Two Ages: America’s Role in the Technetronic Era’. wrote:
“The technetronic era involves the gradual appearance of a more controlled society. Such a society would be dominated by an elite, unrestrained by traditional values. Soon it will be possible to assert almost continuous surveillance over every citizen and maintain up-to-date complete files containing even the most personal information about the citizen. These files will be subject to instantaneous retrieval by the authorities.”
“The nation-state as a fundamental unit of man’s organized life has ceased to be the principal creative force: International banks and multinational corporations are acting and planning in terms that are far in advance of the political concepts of the nation-state”
This globalising technology-led tendency has gathered pace in the last decade with the WEF at the forefront of proceedings. The following are but a few quotes from Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum contained in his 2016 book, The Fourth Industrial Revolution.
“Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies are truly disruptive—they upend existing ways of sensing, calculating, organizing, acting and delivering. They represent entirely new ways of creating value for organizations and citizens”.
“Sooner than most anticipate, the work of professions as different as lawyers, financial analysts, doctors, journalists, accountants, insurance underwriters or librarians may be partly or completely automated…”
“Drones represent a new type of cost-cutting employee working among us and performing jobs that once involved real people”
“Already, advances in neurotechnologies and biotechnologies are forcing us to question what it means to be human”
We are at the threshold of a radical systemic change that requires human beings to adapt continuously. As a result, we may witness an increasing degree of polarization in the world, marked by those who embrace change versus those who resist it.
Enter the Pandemic
Whether the consequence of zoonotic transfer or laboratory leak, the COVID-19 virus has failed to live up to the catastrophic expectations of half a million deaths in the UK based on Neil Ferguson’s discredited computer modelling. It was never the 21st century version of the Black Death. Indeed WEF’s Kurt Schwab and Thierry Malleret in a book, The Great Reset, published in July 2020, allow that COVID-19 is “one of the least deadly pandemics the world has experienced over the last 2000 years”, adding that “the consequences of COVID-19 in terms of health and mortality will be mild compared to previous pandemics”.
Nevertheless they cannot contain their delight at the opportunities opened up by its emergence.
“It is our defining moment”, “Many things will change forever”. “A new world will emerge”. “The societal upheaval unleashed by COVID-19 will last for years, and possibly generations”. “Many of us are pondering when things will return to normal. The short response is: never”.
“The pandemic is clearly exacerbating and accelerating geopolitical trends that were already apparent before the crisis erupted”.
Amongst the themes running dizzily through their excitement are:
The crucial need for the financial sector, together with the corporate, technological and pharmaceutical giants, to be the enlightened leadership of the way forward in tackling the world’s problems. “The combined market value of the leading tech companies hit record after record during the lockdowns, even rising back above levels before the outbreak started… this phenomenon is unlikely to abate any time soon, quite the opposite”.
The necessity of digitally transforming our private and public existence, whether through shopping, via a shift to on-line banking; on-line education, tele-medicine or even e-sport “Online banking interactions have risen to 90 percent during the crisis, from 10 percent, with no drop-off in quality and an increase in compliance.”;“In the summer of 2020, the direction of the trend seems clear: the world of education, like for so many other industries, will become partly virtual”; “The necessity to address the pandemic with any means available (plus, during the outbreak, the need to protect health workers by allowing them to work remotely) removed some of the regulatory and legislative impediments related to the adoption of telemedicine”;“For a while, social distancing may constrain the practice of certain sports, which will in turn benefit the ever-more powerful expansion of e-sports. Tech and digital are never far away!”
The requirement that our physical and psychological presence on earth is subject to the policing and surveillance of what we do and what we think – see also Shoshanna Zuboff’s ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’. In the wake of the lockdowns, vaccine passports, physical muzzling and ideological censorship, I’ll visit the biosecurity state and freedom of thought and movement in Part Three.
The demand that we speed up becoming identifiable, immunised, traceable, card-carrying, cash-less consumers.“The current imperative to propel, no matter what, the ‘contactless economy’ and the subsequent willingness of regulators to speed it up means that there are no holds barred
These developments are revealing but leave unanswered a nagging question, why would the ruling class, hardly noted for its humanity, close down society in the name of our common good? Back in the twentieth century Castoriadis warned against the illusion of ‘perpetual production and ceaseless consumption’, which as it is shattered will invite the rise of authoritarianism. More immediately, in the midst of the pandemic itself, Fabio Vighi ponders “why the usually unscrupulous ruling elites decide to freeze the global profit-making machine in the face of a pathogen that targets almost exclusively the unproductive, the over 80s?”
Given there is precious little evidence that lockdowns have been the compelling riposte to the virus, it is intriguing to follow Vighi’s line of thought.
Above all lockdowns were imposed because the financial markets were yet again collapsing. In order to rescue the markets with another massive injection of cash the real economy had to be halted, everyday business transactions and the need for credit postponed. In this way capitalism buys time as it seeks to revive itself. Such a holding tactic is likely to be played again – see the constant references to new variants, unexpected emergencies. In this stuttering scenario one winner is without doubt Big Pharma. The sickly pharmaceutical giants, whose profits were waning, have been given a new lease of life via the oxygen of public funds provided to develop and then purchase the vaccines.
Reinventing itself is an utter necessity for capitalism as the old certainties disappear. Workers are thrown out of the workforce as automation takes over and increasingly they cannot find a way back into the fold of employment. In general the mass of the population will slide into relative debt and poverty. A chilling question surfaces, to what extent is a significant part of the working and middle classes surplus to requirements?
When push comes to shove the measures taken to counter the pandemic are part of necessary paradigm shift if capitalism is to survive. The taken-for-granted model of endless production and consumption, of inexorable economic progress is heading for compulsory redundancy. Vighi comments that as of now, “ capitalism is increasingly dependent on public debt, low wages, centralisation of wealth and power, a permanent state of emergency and financial acrobatics.”
As for the future it smells dystopian. The WEF’s economic and political programme, the nightmare of stakeholder capitalism or more aptly technocratic neo-feudal capitalism, is a regime of rule by experts. It disdains democracy. It spurns the active, critical citizen. It prefers we settle for being contemporary serfs, obedient and grateful. If you think I exaggerate, look around at the compliance of so many, not least amongst the professional classes, during a manufactured pandemic.
In part Three I will visit the State of Fear created by a toxic mix of company-bound scientists and stenographers disguised as journalists – ‘the’ Science and the supine mass media.
Across the period of the pandemic, I have scribbled a host of responses in an effort to shed light on what has been going on. They have slid surreptitiously into my computer’s bottom drawer or spiralled away embarrassed into the hidden mists of the Cloud. However, I’m provoked to retrieve them. I do think we are living through a pivotal historical moment. It feels better to be wrong than be silent. The title of this post, ‘Searching for Understanding in the face of Power and Propaganda’, makes obvious my conflict with the endlessly circulated mainstream narrative. I will try to give substance to this discord in the hope that it’s possible to debate rather than declaim.
This first post is personal and biographical. It seeks to illustrate, amongst other things, why from the very beginning of the pandemic the leading role played by behavioural science set my dentures on edge. It will become plain why I was thus rattled.
It was a meeting out of the blue that woke me with a start and saw me climbing into the Cloud to rescue my thoughts. A few weeks ago, in the heaving embrace of a maskless Cretan taverna, I hugged and kissed a very dear friend, who I hadn’t seen since the authoritarian lockdown on association and expression was imposed, almost 18 months ago. The hubbub hardly lent itself to thoughtful conversation. Yet as we shook our heads in unison about the manufactured melodrama, within which we were playing our part, the question hung in the nocturnal, perfumed air, ‘Why?’
The morning after, my head clearing, I felt obliged to answer the question for myself, if nobody else. In trying to unravel ‘why?’ I won’t focus immediately on the nature of the virus itself, the deaths, the cost of lockdowns and so on. Such a necessary encounter will come later. For now I’m just trying to get my head around why I was suspicious about the pandemic from the very outset.
I will begin with a couple of truisms.
Firstly, across history, the first commandment of the ruling class in any epoch has been the retention of its power, the maintenance of its control over the majority, almost at whatever cost. Yet I would venture that even at the height of its hubris the elite has displayed a certain psychological insecurity, afraid of its own shadow, the people it dominates. In response, the powerless, the exploited and the oppressed have been forced to accommodate or resist or indeed to do both, most times unaware of their rulers’ fragility. From time to time, thank goodness, the ruling class has been ousted or where would we be now?
Secondly, societies, simple or sophisticated, have sought to socialise their members into an acceptance of and adherence to a set of dominant values and norms. Overwhelmingly these rules were imposed from above, for example, the Monarchy, the Church or the State. Cornelius Castoriadis defined such societies as heteronomous, closed societies of obedience. Insofar as there has been a period of exception in the West, this began in the 17th century with the Enlightenment, the ceaseless questioning of the status quo and was inspired by the struggle for democracy, the clash between the working classes and their masters in the 19th and 20th centuries. Castoriadis dubbed this self-conscious, critical and collective activity, ‘the project of autonomy’. Thirty years ago he worried that the project had stalled. He suggested that there were increasing signs of a retreat into heteronomy, the abandonment of a radical, improvisatory vision of another world being possible, a flight from the struggle for an authentic democracy.
In retrospect, I wonder tentatively if I was born into what might be viewed as a promising but ultimately frustrating, even worryingly final period in the project’s progress, the post-1945 settlement between Capital and Labour. On my way in 1958 to being an upwardly mobile working-class young man, the culture of my grammar school was more open than closed, rich rather than poor in its choices. An English teacher, I loved, ran an after-school Music Appreciation Society, procured for us free tickets to the Halle Symphony Orchestra’s concerts and directed us in a performance of the ‘Seven Ages of Man’, a tableau of extracts from Shakespeare’s works with musical interludes. Meanwhile, a physics teacher, who was a famous international rugby player, found time to encourage me in my eccentric desire to be a successful race walker. Even my disastrous GCE results proved not to be the end of the world. I managed to get a place at a Teacher Training College and flourished in its welcoming, student-centred, liberal climate, strutting the stage as president of the Dramatic Society and representing the college in all manner of sports. I began to find my voice intellectually, even if it sounded through literary rather than political criticism. Whatever my political naivete in those days I always felt stimulated as well as manipulated. Does this marry today with the experience of a working-class lass or lad entering Higher Education?
Of course, my picture of the past is too pretty by far, brush-stroking away contradictions and inconsistencies at a personal and societal level. My first teaching post in a Church of England primary school witnessed a tense relationship with other members of staff, who thought I was far too friendly with the children, threatening the disciplinary ethos of the institution. Yet the gentle headmaster, who did still contrarily and occasionally use a ruler on ‘naughty’ children’s legs, allowed me full rein to teach as I thought fit. As indeed did the Council’s Education Department with a charismatic Director at the helm. He was determined that every child should have a rounded educational experience so schools vibrated in time with the arts, music and outdoor education, encouraged by an abundance of specialist advisers and teachers. When I moved into youth work my centre housed the Department’s very own challenging and controversiall theatre group. You must beware my rose-tinted spectacles. What I am sure of is that this was a period within which there was trust and faith in an open and improvisatory educational process. As best as I remember the words outcome and impact never passed our pursed lips.
Certainly, the 1970s, a decade of discontent and dissension, were the years of my political awakening and my conscious commitment to the project of autonomy, which at the time I would have called the struggle for socialism. Through youth work, I discovered humanistic psychology in its Rogerian variant. Through my growing political activity, I discovered Marxism, Anarchism and Feminism. All these influences in differing and imperfect ways were expressions of the struggle for an autonomous society, within which in concert with one another the people, and no one else, make the laws by which they [we] live. This was no academic experience. It was to be part of the passionate social movements of the time, sometimes at one, sometimes at odds with each other, which looked to develop in theory and practice the inextricably intertwined politics of class, gender, race, sexuality and disability. However, as I moved in and out of the worlds of youth work and political activism I was often dismayed by the crude judgements made about other human beings, whether as individuals or in groups. The person-centred psychology I advanced was devoid of politics. The politics I pursued was psychologically bereft. The task seemed plain – to bring politics into psychology and vice-versa.
In this context, Marilyn Taylor and I began to explore what might be a radical psychology that situated the unique individual and her actions within the matrix of social relations not of her choosing. From the beginning, our effort was plagued by behaviourism in its day-to-day ‘common-sense’ form and by behaviourism’s scientific pretension, its desire to create a theory of personality and human activity, good for all times, all places and all people. In both its amateur and professional manifestations on its best behaviour, it tends simplistically to know what is right or wrong, always confident it knows what is best for others. It nudges us to do its bidding. It is judgemental and disinterested in context or history. It generalises and categorises. At a theoretical level behavioural psychology posits the preposterous notion of a general individual, who floats above the messy complex reality of social relations. Hence the targets for its manipulation are always groups of undifferentiated human beings, for example, youth defined as a homogeneous category or, for that matter, the population of the United KIngdom in March 2020.
As neoliberalism in the late 1970s became economically paramount, behavourism became its favoured ideological tool. In 1981 whilst defending the notion of an holistic social education approach within youth work I criticised the Manpower Service Commission’s promotion of instrumental Social and Life Skills Training for young people, the arena of so-called Youth Opportunities. In an arcane turn of phrase I charged the MSC with desiring nothing less than ‘the behavioural modification of the young proletariat’. Getting on for three decades later I felt able to resurrect the charge.
Possessing no vision of a world beyond the present New Labour has been obsessed with the micro-management of problematic, often demonised youth. Yearning for a generation stamped with the State’s seal of approval the government has transformed Youth Work into an agency of behavioural modification. It wishes to confine to the scrapbook of history the idea that Youth Work is volatile and voluntary, creative and collective – an association and conversation without guarantees.
Neoliberalism seems a broken economic model. However its ideology, the values and ideas it has promoted across three decades, remains hegemonic, ‘the common-sense of our age’ (Hall, 2011). Few remain untouched by a behavioural modification project conducted on the grandest scale, the manufacturing of a possessive and self-centred, satisfied yet never satiated, consumer for whom a notion of the common good is almost blasphemous. Individuals are forced to deal with the social problems outsourced by the state – of poverty, health, housing and indeed education. As for the last of these, neoliberal ideology is instrumental and reductive, deeply suspicious of critical thinking. Teachers teach to test, lecturers cram consumers and, as we shall see, youth workers are led by outcomes.
In July 2012 the Young Foundation produced a Framework of Outcomes for Young People, which sought to bring under manners the volatile world of informal youth work via the introduction of ‘measurable’ outcomes and impact. Marilyn and I wrote a rejoinder, within which we noted:
The die is cast immediately. The product of the framework is to be the ’emotionally resilient’ young individual, who through the planned interventions of youth workers, will shrug their shoulders at adversity. Utterly in tune with government policy this manufactured individual will have less need for public services such as health and social welfare and will be willing to work for whatever wages, zero-hour contracts or indeed benefits are on offer. This is the self-centred, compliant young person of neo-liberalism’s dreams. The last thing such an obedient cipher would do is to ask, “how come this is happening to me, my mates, to thousands of others?” Nowhere in the Framework is there an acknowledgement that to talk of personal change demands an engagement with the social and political circumstances underpinning young people’s lives.
Remarkably the Framework’s fix on young people takes us back half a century. Throughout its pages young people are viewed as a homogeneous category – young people are young people are young people. The young person is denied his or her class, gender, race, sexuality, disability and faith. Despite all the talk about the individual in the Framework the individual described is that theoretical monstrosity, the general individual, who in reality does not exist. It is as if the gains of the late twentieth century in understanding the social individual never occurred. For example a working-class black young woman does not experience the world in exactly the same way as a white middle-class young woman and so on. And indeed the individual working-class black young woman herself can never be reduced to a general expression of her own social grouping. Comprehending the individual is no simple matter.
Indeed I spoke to this critique at several youth work seminars and conferences within the UK , Europe and, even to my delight, Brisbane in Australia, the last of these at Plymouth in 2017. The analysis struck a chord with many who were led to apologise for not singing along. With sadness they advised that there was no option but to chant from the behaviourist hymn sheet or risk losing their place in the choir. As for the behavioural choir leaders they thanked me for composing an alternative tune, pinched a well-pitched note or two and continued to coach the enforced collective rendition of their mechanistic melody. Like it or not, and I didn’t, I returned from such gatherings, heavy of heart. Words were not wounding the confidence of the behaviourists. And on the ground, willing or unwilling, practitioners complied, appealing to each other for the latest in prescribed scripts and recommended tools.
Today, the voices in English youth work emanating from such as the National Youth Agency and the Centre for Youth Impact reflect the watchwords of the so-called ‘third culture’ -‘no politics, no conflict, no ideology, simply science, delivery and problem-solving’. The apolitical hypocrisy on display is par for the course, hardly troubling anyone anymore.
In this context, the dominance of the behavourists and fading resistance to their stranglehold, I had all but withdrawn, to my shame, from the fray. I had been involved in a running battle with a dehumanising opponent, who was well ahead on points. In the last year I’ve written just one piece, Resistance in a Climate of Anxiety and Precarity, which, a single reply apart, did not take seed in parched pastures. Rightly or wrongly I felt isolated, even indulgently sorry for myself. Castoriadis’ concern seemed increasingly pertinent. An arrogant technocratic and managerial outlook prevailed. Intuition, compassion and love exiled.
In the early months of 2020 the dramatic arrival upon the scene of a virus said to be an existential threat to humanity jolted me from my malaise. From the begining I was deeply sceptical about the remarkable overnight unity of 198 countries in following the unelected World Health Organisation’s declaration of a pandemic and the blanket adoption of the same narrative by politicians and the mainstream media across the world. Perhaps it was merely a matter of coincidence.
In particular, given the above diatribe on the dangers of behaviourism, I was alarmed by the central role being played in the UK by the initially anonymous Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours [SPI-B]. The group was charged with providing ‘behavioural science advice aimed at anticipating and helping people adhere to interventions that are recommended by medical and epiemiological experts’. I bridled at the messages contained in the paper, ‘Options for increasing adherence to social distancing measures’, March 22, 2020. Within its pages the group asserted that ‘a substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently threatened’. Hence ‘the perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased amongst those who are complacent using hard=hitting emotional messages’. Thus did a political, unethical and undemocratic campaign of fear begin. I was fearful – not of the virus but of the authoritarianism at the heart of of the SPI-B’s propaganda.
As it was my critical stance did not lead immediately to the renaissance of a sense of solidarity with others, even good friends and comrades – far from it. Slowly, as I delved further into the dilemmas posed, I did discover new collective reference points, some unimaginable a few years ago. These will become apparent. In parts Two, Three and Four I will tangle with some of the tensions underpinning the divisions created by the pandemic. In part Two I will offer my best understanding of the political and economic aspects of the pandemic; in part Three I will look more closely at the propaganda of fear, which still continues; in part Four I’ll explore the suppressed conflicts of medical and epidemiological opinion; and, if I get this far, in part Five I will ponder what resistance and solidarity might now mean.
The latest CONCEPT, the always probing Scottish Community Education Journal, has landed in my lap at a moment of some personal and political despair. A dearest friend and comrade of nearly 40 years is terminally ill. His cancer was missed – the other side of the COVID balance sheet. As he slips away I feel my [our] hopes for the future, our faith that ‘another world is possible’ slipping away too. As it is I hold his hand from afar, trapped on Crete, this locked-down island ‘paradise’. I send photos and anecdotes, phone and hope to hear his distinctive voice but he is often exhausted and distracted. The very title of this blog, ‘Chatting Critically’ is born of our shared conviction that at the heart of any would-be emancipatory relationship in youth work and far beyond is a willingness to listen, question and explore. In short to chat attentively, respectfully and openly. Perhaps I exaggerate but such a culture of contested concern seems to be on the wane. If we allow the parameters of public debate to be set by behavioural psychologists, who believe they know us better than we know ourselves, what else to expect?
In this light I can but thank all of those involved in CONCEPT and the Letters from Lockdown included in this Spring issue for making me smile a little and reflect afresh. Whilst I doubt whether I have departed the trough of despond, they have prevented me from falling further into its depths. It was much needed and is thoroughly appreciated.
At least since the late 1970s and the triumph of neoliberalism we have lived through a period of orchestrated, self-centred individualism. Active citizens reduced to passive consumers. This debilitating onslaught on both our collective sensibility and our organisations of solidarity has been resisted – most magnificently, in my opinion, during the Great Strike of 1984/85. Yet the neoliberal behavioural modification project has proved highly successful. Even as the neoliberal economic model broke asunder in 2008 its narcissistic ideology held its own. On another day I might well try to explore how the technocratic authoritarian State response to COVID has thrived on the back of demanding that, muzzled, we distance ourselves from each other; that we abandon hard-won freedoms, not least the right to protest. In saying this I recognise that mutual aid flourished in the early part of the manufactured crisis but wonder whas happened to its flowering? And, in directing you to this Memorial Lecture, I do so with some trepidation. Why, you might ask, given my nostalgia for those days, privileged to stand alongside the men and women of the mining communities? My anxiety flows from my dismay at the British Left as a whole, which, if anything, has indicated that, if in power, it would be even more draconian. For my part, if they could be bothered , I would suggest they read and ponder the libertarian Lenin, who in ‘State and Revolution’ argued that ‘every cook’ should govern. As it is today most cooks, outside of the home, are unemployed and haven’t the faintest say in ‘what’s going on’. I’m intrigued by how Ken Loach will see matters.
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.
Over the past few weeks I’ve made untold efforts to write something useful about the present virus-induced crisis. Amidst the ‘noise’ generated by a waterfall of articles arguing that neoliberalism, its ideology of the free market and self-centred individualism, has been exposed, I seemed to have little to add and have fallen silent. Indeed the only moment when at least some words came to my mind resulted in a piece for a special COVID-19 edition of CONCEPT, the Scottish Community Education journal, which should appear soon.
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.
Obviously this sweeping, even pretentious contention needs more explanation and exploration, which I’ll pursue when the CONCEPT special comes out. In the meantime responses to the Citizen Enquiry explained below offer the prospect of gathering evidence from the grassroots about the repercussions of the crisis on young people and youth work. I have copy and pasted from the IDYW web site. I would urge folk to be involved if at all possible.
What is going on for youth work in these current circumstances? How are young people feeling? What challenges are youth workers and organisations facing?
Janet Batsleer and others (including members of our own steering group) have come together to call for a ‘Citizen Enquiry’ to find out – and document for the future – what is happening for young people and for youth work and youth workers in the current situation. They invite youth workers and young people to contribute diaries for one day per month, starting on Tuesday 12th May. The idea is to contribute these youth work diaries to the wider Mass Observation archive. More information will come out nearer the time, but for now, do get in touch with Janet (details below) if you are interested in contributing a diary, encouraging others to contribute, and / or joining a network of citizen enquirers willing to discuss and analyse the contributions. This is a bottom-up, citizen inquiry, not run by any university or institution, hoping to attract wide support from youth workers. We will be sharing more as the project progresses.
Call for a Citizen Enquiry: Youth Work and Young People Now
We propose to host a Citizen Enquiry through the community-based youth work sector concerning what is happening for young people and what is happening to youth work and youth workers now and over the coming months.
To do this we will need a) a network of correspondents in all parts of the United Kingdom and b) a network of citizen enquirers willing to join in discussing and analysing what is emerging. The main purpose is to find out What is happening here? And what is happening for young people? We do not only want to document youth work but get a snapshot into the lives of both youth workers and young people during this time and the coming months. So this can include the weather, the atmosphere, the food, the music, the emotions…whatever you want to include you can. We will be making a contribution to the wider picture of what is happening via Mass Observation (www.massobs.org.uk)
We will ask for diary entries each month for at least one day on the first week of the month (starting in May) from youth workers and if possible also with young people they are working with. We will also join the Mass Observation diary project on 12th May. In addition, we invite short reports (memos) on the following themes:
Vulnerabilities and Precarious lives
Who is missing? How is outreach work happening?
Crisis points and meeting basic needs
What is happening online?
Fears and hopes for the future of your organisation/youth project ?
Then a group of citizen researchers from the youth work sector will meet monthly to consider what has been submitted in their area, join a national meeting to see what is emerging and, after 6 months say , decide on what to enquire into further.
This will be an independent citizen led research project.
Those involved will be invited to submit their diaries via this enquiry to the Mass Observation archive at the University of Sussex who are undertaking a record of everyday experiences of the pandemic. They will be invited to use the ethical processes associated with Mass Observation and guidance of this will be given when people join the project.