So far as I’m aware, I’m not infected yet. Given the leaked internal reports that The Guardian reported on last week, there’s a very good chance that at some point I will be, but for now I’m ok. I’ve been making efforts to social distance purely as a precautionary measure, and the rest of the time I’ve been gazing on in disbelief as society grinds to a standstill. Whoever could have anticipated that it would be that easy? Of course, the chances that a virus would take everything down have been increased exponentially over the last 10 years by the removal of social safety nets by right-wing governments across the world, and now we’re reaping what they have sowed.
Make no mistake, what we are seeing with our own eyes is a case study of a system in crisis. If you’re looking for some great isolation reading on how we got here, then check out this essay on social contagion, which identifies the root cause of COVID-19 not in racist theories about the eating habits of Chinese people, but in the far more plausible suggestion that Wuhan’s poverty-stricken areas provided an ideal site for animal-human disease transmission. The class dimensions of the ongoing crisis need to be addressed as a matter of vital significance. Not only is it low-paid precarious workers who are most at risk of contracting the virus – at the time of writing, non-essential shops across the UK remain open despite the estimated number of infected passing 10,000 – but it is grassroots organisations that will suffer the greatest losses from the shutdown.
Quite recently, I wrote a piece for Huck Magazine where I looked into how independent clubs are nurturing an experimental music culture that is fundamentally working-class, a continuation of the proletarian bohemia of the 60’s and 70’s. While in the article I identified gentrification as the key issue facing this culture, it turns out we hadn’t noticed a more immediate problem. Most of these venues are now shuttered until further notice, festivals have been cancelled as far forward as July, and much of this year’s revenue is already forfeit. This will have far reaching implications, especially amongst the organisations who don’t have the luxury of float cash to get them over the curve. Glastonbury and Primavera will bounce back from this, but what about proudly experimental and niche festivals such as Supersonic, Sounds From The Other City, or Supernormal? These festivals are all based in the UK’s urban hinterlands and beyond, are often a breeding ground for radical politics and experimental culture, and have been abandoned by a government whose views on funding the arts range from apathy to disdain.
I want to talk briefly about how COVID-19 has impacted me, beyond simply the things I love and invest my life in. The rise of the outbreak in the UK comes at a time of unprecedented precarity for me. I am in the process of being evicted from my home, which has meant trying to find a new place to rent during a time when no-one wants strangers walking around their home. I am unemployed and likely to remain that way – I have had interviews cancelled due to social distancing requirements. My internet has been switched off, which means my access to networks of support are further limited. My situation is grim, I have no doubt, but it is far from unique. My housing situation is the result of a deregulated housing market that has fostered a parasitic landlord class, and there are many cases across social media of people experiencing similar exploitation in the face of the crisis. My job situation is exacerbated by the devaluation of arts degrees in a job market that valorises proximity to finance and economics. And as for the internet, let us not forget which party promised to nationalise broadband in their recent manifesto, and were unfairly ridiculed for it. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a second Winter of Discontent in the aftermath of what is shaping up to be a lost summer, but I’ve also considered that that may be wishful thinking.
The last few years have taught us that class consciousness is dead insofar as the UK and US are concerned. Not only that, one could make the case that even basic solidarity is on its deathbed. This has shown itself consistently through the failure of would-be socialist governments failing to gain a foothold in the (admittedly unfair) realm of electoral politics, though it also appears, more damningly, through the lack of interest or engagement with direct action. Take the continued strike action at universities across the UK by precarious staff, a byproduct of the neoliberal university system. Students routinely direct their anger at the striking staff, accusing them of shortchanging them for their £9000 degrees (never mind that many academic staff were against the introduction of tuition fees in the first place), rather than blaming the callous anti-worker actions of the university management that makes so many academic jobs insecure. At least many academics are organised enough to implement a strike: plenty of other workplaces are either too precarious to strike – as they’d just be fired and replaced, or simply lack any kind of collective vision. Internet activists calling for a general strike after COVID-19 has passed have simply been reading too much Jacobin. They’re correct that, with the conditions that we are currently experiencing, any self-respecting labour force would be whittling away the hours in self-isolation by measuring a noose for each Tory MP. But we don’t have a self-respecting labour force, and that is the obstacle that must be overcome before we can even begin to think about taking the fight anywhere.
Things are bleak, I’m far from the first to say that. Things are as bad as they’ve ever been, and it’s easy to feel completely defeated as we each notice our individual lack of power in the face of global catastrophe. One positive thing that has emerged in response to our government’s ineptitude is the resurgence of the community mutual aid group. People recognising within others a shared problem, and working together to make life better. From each according to their ability, to each according to their need. And it’s not just established leftists who are getting involved; even the politically disenfranchised or disengaged are seeing the benefits of cooperation. Imagine if, after the crisis is over, these mutual aid groups continued to look out for one another, expanded their memberships, recognised other shared oppressions, established solidarity. Destruction of working class community is the goal of the Tory project, but if there’s one thing that can get us through the next few months, it’s the thought of proving them wrong.