This has been a time of unprecedently intense dreaming. And little wonder, when dreams are one of the few places in which we are free to roam.
Evidence (anecdotal and otherwise) seems to suggest that many of us have been dreaming much more intensely since this lockdown. With the old world either paused or at an end, it’s fitting that our experiences are more coloured by dwelling in places neither future nor past, but in a blurry space between. The mind-worlds of a younger self, or the shape of things never to come.
When we come to look back on it, I wonder if we’ll forget that sense of fear and disorientation that marked the period right before the lockdown began. Terror, about the safety of our more vulnerable loved ones. The panic-buying of bog roll and pasta. Experiences of those days and weeks all differ. In my house, we did all get coronavirus we think, just after the lockdown began. Fevers, temperatures, loss of taste, conjunctivitis, a cough that dragged on for weeks. Mercifully, all recovering after a couple of weeks.
I didn’t set out to write a coronavirus post, but to update you on some thoughts on where we’re going (and that I’ve tidied this blog up), but it looks like discussion doesn’t head any other way. So, maybe it is a coronavirus post. But this isn’t about learning to appreciate the free time, or about making bread, or reading clever books. A lot depends not just on your economic position, but your social one too. But I don’t think I’ve learned anything. I haven’t grown.
Our situation is different of course. Me and my partner have been working over full-time, as is usual, but balancing looking after a toddler with that has been hard. I now do childcare most of the week. That’s been nice most of the time. I have a close bond with my son, we have a lot of fun, but it’s hard at others too. This won’t be a time of productivity then, nor should it. And our situation is better than most – we’ve got seemingly secure jobs, food, a roof over our heads, family around to help.
Responses to how friends and family are faring are always going to be anecdotal, and that’ll always be limited by my social circles. But I do gain a wider perspective through the students I teach, most aged about 19 or 20, but a significant number between 50 and 70.
Compared to previous years, contact with my students has been less frequent, once the remote teaching is out the way. But whereas students would often relay ideas for essays and dissertations back and forth, now that work has in lots of cases slowed significantly. Some have gotten ill, but relayed more often are feelings of anxiety and paralysis as their loved ones have either gotten ill or have seemed worryingly vulnerable to doing so.
I often hear them more listless than before, unable to focus. ‘TL;DR’ is a new one to me (I hope you’re not reaching this conclusion already…)
In the background are negotiations around space, time and who they are, as many are sent back to crowded family homes that university was in part an escape from. In part, that struggle to concentrate reflects the not-knowing where it all stands. Vague, shifting rules of the lockdown; vague, shifting dates of assessments. This respiratory pandemic has thrown everything in the air.
But it comes down to something more basic – fear.
Fear so deep, fear so debilitating. Powerful and urgent feelings of fear, which reactivate deeper and older fears within us. Fears whose origin or nature is intangible, and comes out in different ways.
One of the most useful things I got from teaching a course on Martha Nussbaum’s philosophy this term (I will write about this course here soon) was her emphasis on how fear and helplessness are at the root of what makes us human, particularly in our earliest formative months and years. Out of the infant’s fear emerges a tyrannical narcissism (I see this first-hand!). ‘His majesty the baby’, said Freud wryly.
But while the infant’s helplessness and dependency is overcome through their development and away from their mothers, certainly no scientist yet has found a vaccination against our helplessness. If so, human beings would become gods.
Anger is a child of fear, Martha Nussbaum argues in The Monarchy of Fear, and it is hard to see how, out of the grave social and economic uncertainties around each of us right now – and not just here, but even more so in the developing world – that powerful forces of anger can be easily checked. There is already a hint of this in the editorial line of publications like The Economist hinting at a shift away from unregulated free markets and austerity as politically unpalatable (let alone irresponsible and counterproductive) in reconstructing western economies after Covid-19.
But this macro perspective drifts away from what’s right under our noses. Back in the mid-19th century, Benjamin Disraeli wrote of Two Englands that existed side-by-side without ever really being understood by the other. With the current pandemic, this has happened in two ways.
First, social class has had a vastly disproportionate effect on sickness and deaths. These have been highest in parts of England associated with greatest concentrations of poverty: Newham in East London as well as the North-East of England, around Gateshead and Sunderland. Both, unexpectedly, were places I have been researching before all this began. Death have also tended to be higher among older in generally poorer BAME communities. That’s not to say being poor alone is the cause: health, diet, genetics, cultural norms about family life and cultural engagement with public health all count too. But it’s significant.
Second is the lockdown and work. The middle classes have largely been protected by furlough schemes and the ability to work from home safely (doctors an obvious exception). But with many working class jobs, it’s not merely about difficulties accessing furlough schemes for self-employed or zero hour workers; it’s about the expectation that work can and will continue. Delivery drivers and shop staff, care-workers, local government services, builders and tradesmen. The Deliveroo rider, once the image of the gig economy, is doing a brisk trade around the streets of Leyton and Stratford – I see them skip the lights when I take my son out on the bike. For many middle class people, the lockdown is inconvenient, boring, but an opportunity for engaging in homely or learned pursuits – sourdough and podcasts. For much of working class England, it seems to be quite different – continued work, deeper financial uncertainty, greater likelihood of loved ones or oneself falling ill (it would seem).
No-one’s being told off here, there’s enough moralising as it is. It’s just worth reminding ourselves to be more sceptical of the images of solidarity being blasted out by Tory rags alongside an NHS tea-towel and a message from the Queen.
Consider this, below, from Saturday’s Mail. I can imagine Year 10 students analysing this in 50 years time for some school History coursework on how the ideology of Johnsonism contributed to the UK’s inept handling of the pandemic.
This front-page is the key to understanding the present and near future…
There are three things we should keep in mind here.
1) This is less the start of a new era, more an acceleration of problems of the old…
The powerful always appeal for solidarity in a crisis, we saw the same in 2008 and after. There’s no reason to think that one mid-term effect of all this huge state support for the private sector won’t result in the same levels of wealth inequality being preserved, if not even worsened.
But it shows what many of us had argued or at least suspected. In Boris Johnson’s magic money forest, the Keynesian lumberjack would be at a loss at where to begin. The state always had the ability to draw and use its vast resources to eliminate homelessness or better fund the NHS. What it doesn’t show yet is that a universal basic income is possible – western economies are able to borrow relatively cheaply compared to the developing world to finance short-term support, but something longer would involve a complete restructuring not just of the economy, but in people’s relationship and identification with work (and that is a longer way off).
But it’s interesting to begin thinking about a “great pause” or a post-2020 world in which universal well-being and power replace the competitive individualism and cynicism about human nature of the last 40 years. In the immense reconstruction and regeneration that lies ahead, there is an opportunity to rebuild politics and the economy with different ideas and values. And if hope or love does not motivate some, then we always will have fear – fear of the same mistakes, the countless dear ones lost because of inadequate personal protection, the callousness behind the policy of ‘herd immunity’, or bungled state responses.
But fear of something else that will come back every year for this decade, and for every decade thereafter – climate. The climate crisis, and what will become the increasingly urgent need to act nationally and internationally in response to a series of natural and humanitarian emergencies.
Then there is the continued problem of general inequality across the world (even if absolute poverty has been significantly reduced). And just as natural environments are collapsing, so networks of social care have too – long underfunded, undervalued, and now collapsing too. All require an immense programme of regeneration.
2) We should start to orientate our thinking
I said earlier that I hadn’t learned anything. And perhaps all that dream talk can also be explained by a lack of stimulation with genuine difference and new experiences. But that’s not quite true.
I’ve been following how people have been responding to all this in terms of their thinking. For about half a moment I had a hare-brained idea of calling everyone I have known over the past few years and asking them a question. Then I remembered I was holding a crying kiddie whose nappy had exploded and I hadn’t slept properly for two weeks.
But the question is still worth mulling: What have you learned from the past six weeks? And what’s one way in which you’d like things to change after this?
Well, really that’s two questions. And the second is too vague to answer. Yes, but it’s deliberately so, because things mean many things to each of us. In thinking about my answer, part of the conversation has been how the middle classes and upper should contribute much more to a reconstruction that has so far been better at protecting them. I mean in part the kinds of corporate and wealth taxes associated with Thomas Piketty’s latest book. But it’s more than that. It’s about thinking seriously about things that indirectly over-benefit these groups, like the housing market, or the investment of much of our pension funds in often ethically questionable businesses.
But that also means getting beyond blame or praise. It’s not about moralising or pointing out the bad people, about scapegoating some or cancelling others. It’s about living up to Spinoza’s maxim: ‘not to laugh at human actions, or mourn them, or curse them, but only to understand them’.
Cartoon from The Economist, 25th April 2020
3) This is still about politics
When those Year 10 students in the year 2070 yawn and look over their screens at the list of sources and questions about our response right now, let’s hope they keep the facts at the forefront. As Professor Sarah Harper, founding director of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing said in the Observer today:
“To be blunt, it was a lack of testing, a failure to shut down society in time, and a lack of care equipment that are to blame for current high Covid-19 death rates.”
Elsewhere in the same piece, a consultant cardiologist adds:
“We were arrogant … We thought we had nothing to learn from other countries and thought we were an exceptional case. In fact, we had a lot to learn but didn’t take the opportunity.”
Those are matters of politics – they reflect government decisions or lack thereof.
But it involves a wider shift, leaving behind narcissistic exceptionalism and a self-centred mentality that premises personal success as inevitably at another’s expense. Towards something that recognises that our capacity to think, act and live well is entirely reliant on powerful institutions that nurture, care and support each of us to develop these faculties. That this development is a lifelong project. That the ability to think and deliberate even-handedly and with regard to the well-being of others is democracy’s living strength.
And that when we talk about something like collective well-being and power, we’re talking about taking a path completely out of the political and economic order of the last forty years. Tearing a hole through the fabric of that ‘capitalist realism’ like that mysterious 19th century engraving of the Flammarion, venturing through to the other side. All the environmental and social problems of 2019 are still there, if also concealed by their lockdown: the environment, care, housing, secure jobs. As those listless young folk go into a post-covid job market even worse than the one I graduated in 2008, that anger will not go away.
We’re going somewhere, whether we choose to try to try and steer that or not. As a woman in the homeless hostel I used to work in once told me, cryptically: ‘change doesn’t happen, change is’.