Now is hardly the time to be preoccupied by grumbles about the state of the nation. Emergencies such as the coronavirus should ideally see us setting aside our other differences and working for the common good. (I am very irritated by the email feeds that I subscribe to, which have continued to make political capital out of the situation).
However, it is also true that extreme circumstances often reveal stark realities about the way we live. Albert Camus used epidemic in his major work La Peste for precisely this purpose: the way in which various characters react in extremis speaks volumes about the real nature of the human condition.
On the one hand, locally there have been any number of small gestures of community-spirited kindness – while on the other, certain landlords elsewhere apparently intend to evict tenants who can’t pay their rent, come what may; this reflects a depressingly callous side of human nature. (Since I first drafted this, the government has said it will make such actions illegal – but the intent nonetheless remains…)
What is true of individuals is, it seems, also true of nations. The respective responses of various countries to a broadly common threat is quite revealing about the mindset of those who run them, not to say their general level of competence. To be fair, we should overlay on that the relative position of those countries in relation to the development of the pandemic. Those who were hit first can hardly be blamed for making mistakes that experience may allow others to avoid.
But it still informative to note the extent to which some nations have adopted a hawkish approach, while others have been towards the ‘dove’ end of the spectrum; this perhaps reflects varying perspectives on, and levels of compassion towards, humanity in general. And once again, Blighty seems to have been firmly in the hawkish camp. Boris Johnson’s early comments on national policy gave the impression that losses amongst the ‘ordinary ranks’ were to be considered acceptable, or at least unavoidable, collateral damage. Only later, when this was reported negatively, were slightly softer messages forthcoming.
His choice of words is also informative: he considers dealing with a virus to be a “war” in which we are all to be conscripts. It is not very different from the imagery he used for Brexit. It betrays a confrontational, winner-and-loser mentality that is of questionable utility – unless you happen to consider yourself a habitual winner, which Johnson of course does.
A salutary point, however, is that some of the countries that we have become accustomed to praising for their tolerance, progressiveness and democracy, have been quicker than the U.K. to impose conditions not too far removed from martial law. Likewise, Britain’s accursed island status has been thrown into sharp relief: on the one hand the arrival of the virus has shown the idiocy of believing that we really can pull up a drawbridge on the world – but on the other, it is perhaps true that with closed borders, islands and other remoter areas really are somewhat shielded from the risks of a wholesale pandemic that could more easily sweep across a continent.
Perhaps more important, though, is the vision with which a country is run. Are those others who have imposed draconian measures really doing so because of their underlying authoritarianism, or just a more realistic appraisal of what is in their people’s best interest? At least it appears that such policies are consistently and equally applied; I can’t help but wonder whether the gradualist British approach is designed to leave doors ajar for those who have the means to help themselves first…
I don’t subscribe to the view that the ruling class of this country is willfully neglectful of the rest of the nation. It’s more subtle than that – and Johnson is only the particularly buffoonish tip of a much larger establishment iceberg: one that is still raised to think in terms of social hierarchy, “natural orders” and its own self-evident preeminence. It can’t help it, any more than the rest of us can help having our basic assumptions – but it does have further-reaching consequences.
It is an attitude that propagates hawkishness, that makes it easy to consider the ‘ranks’ as lesser human beings, which in turn justifies in its own mind a hierarchical approach to how people are treated even in times of emergency. The key thing (just as it was in national nuclear-strike strategy) is to protect those who are ‘pivotal’ to the perpetuation of the existing order – who just happen, of course, largely to belong to one particular socio-economic stratum. Is this just the privileged protecting themselves again – or (given that many such people are senior decision-makers) a necessary strategy for continued societal functioning? It perhaps shows that in the minds of such people, the continued existence of the British State is more important in itself than that of the majority of the individuals who comprise it: an attitude that is a hangover of Empire if ever there was one.
This mindset is doing significant and increasing damage to the fabric of British society. It can be summed up as Entitlement. From their earliest days, those who are born into this segment of society is taught to assume as a ‘given’ that their destiny is assured – and that that destiny is one of privilege.
By means of accent, lineage, connections, high-paid employment, inherited wealth and education, they continue to sequester the best that this nation has to offer for their own kind, before the hoi polloi has a chance even to get near it. Their crowning achievement is to have persuaded the rest that this is indeed a natural order, in which the principle function of the lower orders is to fall on their swords when necessary in order to perpetuate the good life for those at the top. This is why it shows so little concern for the impact of adverse events on the population at large: it really does consider those other lives to be of lesser value than its own.
It is an intractable problem. As one such person said to me some time ago: “There is so little you can do with the plebs. They are so hopeless, so basic, and with such low expectations that you really can’t consider them to be much more than cannon-fodder”.
Sadly, there is an element of truth in this. Having been working again with young people, it is all too evident that significant numbers come from backgrounds, and have expectations, that are very likely perpetuate poor-quality lives. It is extremely difficult to raise these young people’s expectations, or to persuade them that there are alternative trajectories for their lives to the ones that, by their late teens, they already seem locked into. Pointing out that there are others having very different experiences seems to do little good: they have already bought into the mindset that certain things are “not for the likes of me”. Such attitudes become an unwitting collaborator in keeping the so-called elite where it believes it belongs – and experience suggests that they really are a particularly extreme handicap in British society compared with elsewhere in Europe.
Yet when one is faced with the reality of the such starkly contrasting lives, it becomes quite easy to understand Holly Martins’ view in The Third Man, that most humans are little different from ants, whose ceasing to exist would make almost no difference. Except that its exploitation could help bulwark the higher orders further.
But it is wrong.
It is wrong in a way whose understanding of why is perhaps beyond those whose entire existence is predicated on their belief in their own preeminence. To begin with, you have to un-learn that ingrained assumption that some humans are naturally superior to others. I don’t believe that Johnson and his ilk spend their everyday lives consciously thinking and acting on this – but it is so utterly impregnated in their very existence that they probably can’t help themselves. It doesn’t help that they live and work in a bubble that thrives on such groupthink. Everything about their lives insulates them from the rest of society. This is probably why Johnson seems so little troubled by the criticism radiating from large parts of the rest of society: he simply doesn’t see that the same rules need apply to his type, nor that he need be troubled by their outrage. Part of his privilege is to be able to behave as he pleases, and answer to no one. And after all, the nation has just elected him by a landslide, hasn’t it?
But once you have un-learned the superiority complex of the ruling classes, one thing becomes apparent: it is not that everyone is important – but that in the face of a pandemic, no one is. And once you have accepted that, it becomes very much easier to understand why egalitarianism really is the only logical response – making sure that everyone has the best stab at this life that they can, for there are still so many things about this life that we cannot control that we really do need to optimise those that we can.
The hierarchy that still bedevils every facet of this country, even down to its pandemic management, fails to understand one thing: it is not a survivor of the brutishness of so much of national life, so much as its source. Those (supposedly) lower British orders need not be any coarser than they are in other countries; what makes them so is their knowing lack of opportunity and access to the more elevating aspects of life. And this has primarily been caused by the hoarding tendencies of those with the means to do so: the higher orders are not the refugees from baseness that they seem to believe: they are its cause.
In Italy, residents of the big apartment blocks have responded to their incarceration by singing on their balconies; in Britain, the media seems to be responding to a similar scenario by reminding the nation how much television there is to watch. This is the extent to which such disparities in everyday life-opportunity infiltrate national psyches. I have had to work hard to persuade my teenage students that there is plenty they could do to stop themselves getting bored in the coming months. But they are mostly not that resourceful; British society encourages them to be otherwise.
Life today is in many ways far removed from Hobbes’ view of it as “nasty, brutish – and short”. But we still have far to go – and it is perhaps it is during extreme times, whether Brexit or the pandemic that this is exposed. Some people are starting to describe these things as a wake-up call. Perhaps the test of this theory will be whether those who increasingly run the show use it to bulwark their own positions, or finally to wake up to another reality. After all, the really essential workers at times like this are the ones doing the most basic but essential work – and maybe we need reminding of that fact.
Perhaps the most likely eventuality is that the present economic model – which (with education) is the prime mechanism for perpetuating privilege – may simply fail to cope with this emergency; the fact that Johnson has already hinted at a universal basic income and eviction controls may be a sign that realities are being faced that might otherwise not have been.
On the face of it, a virus does not discriminate between people according to their wealth or social status – but the ability (and willingness) of the elites to protect themselves at others’ expense will no doubt – as Camus pointed out – speak volumes.