News, views and commentary with an anarchist twist

The COVID-19 crisis and the loss of freedom

Preamble

This piece was written at the end of the first week of an initial three week lockdown imposed by the UK government in a bid to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. A lockdown that could well end up being extended if the authorities deem it necessary to do so. A lockdown in which the state has granted itself extensive powers to ease or tighten restrictions and extend as it sees fit. A lockdown that for many people in the country is probably the most drastic measure disruptive to normal life since the end of WW2.

Note we said for many but not for all. During the bitter miners strike of 1984/85, in a ruthless bid to break it, many mining communities were subject to police enforced lockdowns. The nationalist communities in the six counties in the north of Ireland who, until the Good Friday Agreement, experienced numerous restrictions on their freedom of movement from military checkpoints through to the constraints of living in a sectarian statelet. We’re highlighting this just to put things into context.

We’re not downplaying the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic. We realise that there has to be a process of understanding how the virus originated, how it spread, how it’s transmitted between people, who is more susceptible to it and what is the actual death rate. None of these are easy questions to answer and obviously in the process of trying to resolve them, there will be heated debate. Part of that heated debate will concern the measures needed to slow the rate of transmission of COVID-19.

Measures that only a few weeks ago, a fair number of people rightly adopted ahead of the government because they didn’t like the way Johnson and some of his cronies were talking about ‘herd immunity’ and us having to accept that some of our loved ones would have to die. Measures willingly embraced because quite a few people concluded there are elements in government with eugenicist tendencies who can’t be trusted with our safety and welfare. Measures that a fair few of us initially thought were owned by the population in the face of a cavalier government that doesn’t really care about us.

The loss of freedom

That’s rapidly changing as a government that seems to go whichever way the wind blows in a bid to maintain its legitimacy, has taken ownership of these measures, armed with legislation in the form of the Coronavirus Act. We’re slowly working our way through this tome but from what we’ve seen so far, it represents a massive extension of state power to a government, that now Parliament has shut down, is pretty much unaccountable.

Over many decades, a number of commentators have noted that a frightened populace will happily accept drastic curbs on their liberty in return for a sense of security. It’s also been noted that a frightened populace can be manipulated, cajoled and persuaded with relative ease to accept what the authorities are doing to them in the name of so called ‘security’. Think back to the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the palpable sense of fear that was around at the time, the legislation brought in to fight the ‘war on terror’ and the surveillance culture it created which has since been normalised. Apart from a few dissenting voices, there was considerable public support for this increased surveillance. Having said that, it should be noted that, while there was initially a fair degree of public support for the so called ‘war on terror’ that 9/11 sparked off, that rapidly declined as the body bags and injured military personnel came home.

The powers that states across the West conferred upon themselves in the name of the ‘war on terror’ have not been relinquished. Please don’t fall for the notion that the powers the UK government has conferred on itself in the COVID-19 crisis are going to be relinquished once the pandemic is over. Rahm Emanuel said this of a crisis: “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

Obviously, unlike the conspiracy theorists, we’re not saying that the COVID-19 crisis was ‘engineered’ to provide the justification for states across the world to indulge in a massive power grab. We’ll say it here and now that these conspiracy theorists are a serious problem for those of us who want to draw people’s attention to the massive state power grab that’s taking place. Is the UK’s power grab in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic a power grab just for the sake of it? The easy answer would be to say yes it is. The reality is that as the flaws of forty years of neo-liberalism and ten years of austerity are laid bare for all to see, along with the ever widening cracks in the social structure, the power grab is a desperate bid to keep the lid on the situation.

The state prepares for the anger to come

Despite the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, suddenly discovering a ‘magic money tree’ and throwing billions at business in a bid to keep the show on the road, low paid workers are being thrown under the bus. For the landlord class, it’s still business as normal as they callously evict tenants who can’t afford to pay the rent because of the near collapse of much of the economy and the subsequent job losses. The ‘safety net’ for these workers is nothing more than an illusion as they face destitution. Resistance to this grim prospect is growing with calls and mobilisation for a rent strike: Coronavirus has left millions struggling to pay their rent. Some are fighting back.

From the NHS through to the distribution and supermarket workers on the frontline looking after us and keeping us fed, there’s a growing tide of anger at the lack of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) they feel is vital to perform their roles safely. On the construction sites that are still operating on pointless projects such as luxury apartment blocks in London, there’s growing anger at the lack of effective PPE and also the close physical proximity to other workers on the job that flies straight in the face of the advice from the government on physical distancing. There’s only so much people can take before something gives and they take action against being dumped on. In a situation like that, possibly a month or so down the line, a ban on more than two people gathering together in public will be very handy for the authorities in trying to keep the lid on what may well be an increasingly volatile situation.

When the COVID-19 pandemic is finally over, the economy will be in tatters. Life will not be returning to how it was before the pandemic started. Somehow, the fiscal cost of fighting the pandemic is going to have to be recouped. The austerity after the 2008 financial crash will look like a picnic in the park compared to what’s coming. With the prospect of grinding austerity and even more precariousness in employment and housing, life for a lot of us will be grimmer. So grim that there will be a growing number of people who feel they’ve got nothing left to lose and will kick off. The government know this and that’s why they’ll be hanging onto the powers they’ve accrued during the course of this crisis while quite possibly adding a few more because it’s the only way they’ll be able to maintain control.

However, any government wanting to keep its grip on power will want to have enough of the population on side to do their bidding. Even in the early stages of this COVID-19 panic, there are more than enough indications that there are people willing to do the snooping and snitching on neighbours needed to keep the populace in line. Obviously, different police forces are interpreting government laws and guidelines in their own way. Policing the Corona State is a very useful resource for those of you who want to keep track of how this is happening. One example of this is this dedicated online portal set up by Humberside Police which lets people report what they feel are breaches of the COVID-19 guidance. There’s something about a crisis that’s being dealt with by full on state intervention that brings out the inner Stasi in some people and this crisis is no exception!

Cashless and tracked

Changing tack, while it may not seem like an obvious loss of freedom, the move to a cashless society that the COVID-19 crisis is boosting has worrying implications for those of us who don’t like our every purchase monitored and tracked. Don’t get us wrong, we totally get why for perfectly valid reasons of self preservation, shop workers do not want to be handling cash and why most stores have a policy of cashless only transactions. At a point where the understanding of how the virus spreads is still in the early stages, insisting on cashless payments is a reasonable precaution. However, once the pandemic is finally over, we don’t want to see a permanent shift to cashless payment and the eventual elimination of cash.

In a cashless society, should the authorities decide that your political activity is irksome enough to them, they could simply cancel your cash card so that the next time you go out to buy your groceries, it will be a case of ‘computer says no’ and you’re going hungry. Cash, while far from perfect, offers a degree of freedom and independence that helps in a bid to gain some degree of autonomy in our lives. Not wanting to give too much away, we know a few individuals who, after brushes with the law, can’t obtain bank accounts and live a hand to mouth existence based on hustling away for cash. A cashless society would destroy the ability of people like this to be able to survive in any meaningful way. Also, from a more selfish point of view, fundraising with the collection tin at community/radical/anarchist fairs would be totally out of the question!

Conclusion

We understand why many people are focused on the here and now of the situation, particularly if they have loved ones or friends with COVID-19 or are suffering it themselves. We realise that in the early stages of a crisis when feelings are pretty raw, we may not be taking the most diplomatic stance in highlighting the loss of freedom we’ve already experienced and the inevitable further losses to come. What we’ve been trying to do with some of the posts on this blog is look beyond the end of the crisis and towards the kind of world we want to live in. A world that of necessity has to be very different from the dysfunctional, increasingly dystopian one we have to endure. If we don’t resist the loss of freedom we face, the world after the COVID-19 pandemic will be even more dystopian than it is already. This is why we need to start the fightback against the suffocating restrictions an increasingly desperate state will try to inflict upon us as they try to maintain their grip on the situation. It’s about all of our futures…

We’re in a unique, dynamic, rapidly evolving and unpredictable situation. That means that any posts like this one will end up as snapshots in time. A comprehensive account and analysis of what we’re currently going through can only get written after the situation is over and there’s been time for reflection on what’s happened. Let’s hope that account can be written in an open society – if we end up in an authoritarian, dystopian hellhole, we’ll never get the honest account we deserve. Suffice to say, we welcome constructive criticism of and comradely debate on what we’ve written above.

Recommended reading

Sociology of a Disease: Age, Class and Mortality in the Coronavirus Pandemic – Simon Elmer | Architects for Social Housing | 24 March 2020

COVID-19: A sociological critique – Simon Carter, Judy Green and Ewen Speed | Cost of Living | 21 March 2020

Our leaders are terrified. Not of the virus – of us – Jonathan Cook Blog | 24 March 2020

The working class should be hailed as Covid-19 heroes for enabling all our comfy quarantines – Dr. Lisa Mckenzie | RT Question More | 25 March 2020

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