by Phil Shannon
The contemporary left’s support for an economically devastating, authoritarian lockdown, which doesn’t even achieve its limited public health aims, is one of the more remarkable developments in current politics. With its support for extreme ‘social distancing’, the left has reached a new nadir in the ‘political distancing’ between it and its traditional working class constituency, a relationship that has been fraying badly since the democratic, national, working class populist upsurge of recent years as symbolised by the Brexit referendum, the thumping Get-Brexit-Done electoral victory of Boris Johnson, and the surprising Trump miracle.
The left’s lockdown betrayal of the working class further accelerates its decline into political irrelevance. This is not a cause for celebration, especially for someone like myself, a four-decade Australian veteran of working class socialism including as a trade union activist, and member of the Communist Party of Australia and more Trotskyist grouplets than you could shake a Program of the Fourth International at, who still cooks on the left burner (see author’s page here).
What follows is an attempt to understand how and why the left has got into such a pickle over lockdown and how it can begin to resurrect its political integrity.
- The virus is not the virus to end all viruses. The herd immunity threshold is apparently much lower than expected because of cross-immunity due to the common cold and other coronaviruses. Most people (other than the aged with specific comorbidities) who contract it are either asymptomatic or have only mild symptoms. Panicked by one spectacularly bonkers epidemiological model, however, health authorities and politicians across the planet have done their most flamboyant ‘Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!’ impressions, and massively overstated the virulence and lethality of the virus to justify the lockdown lunacy they rushed to institute in order to be seen to be doing something. The virus did not herald the End Times, there never was a curve to be flattened, it never gave cause for draconian lockdown measures.
- Lockdown simply doesn’t work on its own terms. Regardless of if, or when, lockdown was implemented, or how draconian its scope, within and between different countries, the trajectory of the virus, as of other viral pathogens, has followed a natural bell curve of exponential rise, plateau and rapid decline (over just a month or two for the current one) as it hits the limits of natural or acquired herd immunity (Farr’s Law – still going strong since William Farr formulated it in 1840!).
- Lockdown will kill many times more people (from health conditions left undiagnosed and untreated, and from the so-called ‘diseases of despair’ that accompany economic distress) than the virus could ever manage.
- Quarantining the healthy is economically catastrophic, with Depression-era levels of unemployment, business closures, and mind-numbing long-term government debts and deficits. A demographically-targeted, strategic approach of protecting the vulnerable would have had far better financial (as well as health) outcomes both for the vulnerable and for the whole population.
With precious little opposition, lockdown has ushered in:
- ‘Police-state’ powers conferred by emergency decree
- Suspension of democratic accountability – both parliamentary democracy, and the democracy of the streets (unless it’s for an approved, i.e. woke, cause such as #BLM – that’s allowed!)
- Fettering the rights to free speech
- State surveillance (there’s an app for that!)
- Tech giant censorship
- Nauseous government propaganda, and
- Simplistic, in-your-face agit-prop from the establishment media, both private and state
The left should be emphasising the economic aspect of lockdown because it is the working class who are the principal victims of lockdown. The political right, by contrast, are more authentic when representing the profit-making owners of capital rather than the proletarians they employ, the latter having to content themselves with, at best, an amalgam of conservative economic nostrums such as ‘trickle-down theory’ and ‘a rising sea floats all boats’.
Including retired workers and the young who are destined for a wage/salary-earning future, the working class, those who have to sell their labour to an employer, are the vast bulk of the population. The left thus has the biggest constituency, by far, affected by the economic devastation of lockdown.
The rural and other subsistence poor in developing nations are also big losers – from their own countries’ lockdowns and from the contraction of economic demand in the lockdowned richer countries. Three-quarters of new coronavirus cases now detected occur in developing countries and are forecast to increase the prevalence of global ‘extreme poverty’ (living on less than US$1.90 per day) by some 400 million, increasing global ‘extreme’ poverty from one in ten of the global population to around one in seven, and total poverty (living on less than $US5.50 a day) to one in two of the world’s people. This economic hit to the global poor is a result partly of the direct health-related costs of the virus itself but is likely to arise mostly from a population-wide lockdown impacting on the productive, working age population in developing countries because the aged, the most at-risk for the virus, are a much smaller proportion of the total population in poorer countries than they are in the West.
So, it should be a lay-down-misere for the left to oppose the lockdown on the left’s bread-and-butter economic issues affecting the working class (and the global poor).
It should also be entry-level politics for the left to oppose lockdown on those non-economic issues where lockdown policy dilutes civil liberties and free speech, and strengthens political authoritarianism, censorship, media power, etc.
In the past, the left would have gone off like a firecracker on all the above issues, not least because, historically, it has been the working class which has been the left’s core political stomping ground, and it has been the left which has been the target for repression, censorship and denial of free speech by the capitalist state.
What the left has delivered re lockdown, however, are stunning volte-faces on fundamental questions of working class material living standards and on the issues of political and ideological power, such as:
- The economic hit to the working class: The left has displayed either mute unconcern over the economic cost of lockdown to the working class, or passive acceptance of the ‘necessary evil’ of lockdown in a bizarre twist of the old Vietnam War saying that ‘to save the village [from communists/COVID] we had to destroy the village [the people/the economy]’.
- The global poor: Finding the developed world’s (white) working class insufficiently reverential of the ‘Other’ (the West’s BAME people – Black and Minority Ethnic – are the sum total of the left’s attention nowadays), the left has increasingly switched its focus to the world’s poor (BAME writ large), who are now, however, to be thrown under the lockdown bus by the left as lockdown drastically ramps up global poverty.
- Science: The left has rightly demanded that science should prevail over ideology (on climate change, for example) when determining public policy, yet ‘The [Selective] Science’ invoked by politicians, and uncritically embraced by the left, to justify lockdown is either bogus, not proven or still up-for-grabs, and now serves the role of self-justification for promoters of an (ineffective) lockdown.
- Obedience to authority: ‘Question authority!’ used to be the operating principle of the old left. Now, however, on lockdown, the stance of the left appears to be ‘bow down and obey’ as it welcomes policy dictation from above, including the various placebo-like, theatrical ‘social distancing’ rituals (facemasks and tracing apps and social spacing) that dramatically hype the limited threat of the virus. For the lockdown left, the punchline to the old joke set-up of ‘How can you tell when a politician is lying?’ (answer – ‘When their lips move’) has stolen away in the pandemic panic night.
- The media: ‘Always believe the opposite of what the media say’ was once the default setting of the left which was clear-eyed about the establishment media’s role as the propaganda arm of the wealthy ruling class. Now, however, the lockdown left has proven itself to be disappointingly susceptible to a media-confected atmosphere of dread and hysteria foregrounded against the omnipresent graphic of a scary virus, or a harried doctor in full PPE, or a nurse in scrubs, that forms the visual backdrop to every emotionally manipulative virus news item, all invoking a sense of Crisis! Crisis! Crisis! and demanding severe lockdown in response. The left’s political compliance with government lockdown guidance, rules, regulations and laws has been surprisingly cheaply acquired.
- Hypocrisy: Cognitive dissonance is the order of the day for the lockdown left. The imperative to elevate woke pieties above class priorities has, for example, highlighted the woke left’s support for the #BLM protests-cum-riots which flouted the very ‘social distancing’ norms that the left had been, up to then, enthusiastically pushing. Of course, the same leftist priests of social-distancing pronounce anathema on anti-lockdown protests or a Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. For the woke/lockdown left, we’re not ‘all in this together’ – hypocritical political exemptions apply.
The ideological failings of the left on lockdown are accompanied by a pronounced tendency to behave in politically-revealing stylistic ways, including:
- Belligerence: Converse with most lockdown leftists and you will be struck by their hostility to sceptical views and their lack of respect for the holders of those views. Calm discussion of evidentiary and political differences on lockdown has been replaced by the left’s need to beat down lockdown apostates in heated argument, not with better ideas but with belligerence. In politics, as in fashion, ‘the style is the man’ and the lockdown/woke left’s antagonistic and intimidating behaviour reflects poorly on a political grouping that claims to value liberalism, tolerance and ‘diversity’.
- Straw Men: Say that lockdown doesn’t work and is worse than the disease and the sceptic will swiftly be accused of being a callous granny-killer, a moral monster who places ‘money’ ahead of ‘lives’, and profit over people (cf. the facile “No life is worth losing to add one more point to the Dow” of Joe Biden, or the rhetorical doing whatever it takes to “save just one life” homily of New York governor, Andrew Cuomo). Setting up straw men (lockdown sceptic = murderer) to knock down is so much easier than respectfully contesting an exchange of ideas or exploring strategies such as demographically-targeting the vulnerable for protection from the virus.
- Smear by association: Oppose the lockdown? Why, says the lockdown leftist, you must be one of those kooky 5G conspiracists or whatever. Case dismissed. Yes, it is true that some strange political life-forms attach themselves to the fringes of lockdown scepticism. But neither is the left free from a history of its own unwanted and unattractive political relatives, particularly the wild and fundamentally anti-democratic anarchists, up to and including the Antifa goons and Extinction Rebellion loons. Guilt-by-association is a tawdry debating gambit whether used by left or right. Neither the left nor the right can enforce an ideological purity test to control who marches under their banner. There is not much either can do about the loose threads in the great tapestry of political life.
- Virtue-signalling: Left lockdown lovers portray themselves, overtly or by implication, as a better class of person who is superior to the lockdown sceptic – intellectually superior to those they misrepresent as ‘Deniers’ of ‘The Science’ and morally superior to those whom they caricature as being more concerned with ‘the economy’ over health. We, say the left, may have lost a democratic national referendum or an election but we are still better than the nativists, the xenophobes, the gap-toothed, knuckle-dragging deplorables and, now, the heartless lockdown sceptics who are prepared to cruelly cull society of its old geezers.
Given the sign-off in the US and UK on national lockdown guidelines by both Donald Trump and Boris ‘Get-Brexit-Done’ Johnson, there was a glimmer of hope that the left could come out swinging against a lockdown endorsed by their intensely-hated bêtes noires. Opposition to lockdown could have chimed with the left’s noisy imprecations about evil Tories and wicked Republicans responsible for a lockdown which has savaged the working class. This never materialised, however. Why?
The left’s abandonment of the working class for woke politics is the sour fruit resulting from the defeat of the western labour movement in the 1980s when capital, hit by a severe oil crisis, sought to restore capitalist profitability by making the working class pay. At the forefront of this resurgent neo-liberalism was the neutering of the then-powerful trade union movement, an assault led by the dozy Reagan and the flinty Thatcher, who proved to be more aggressive class brawlers than the defensive organs of labour. In industrial battles of Iwo Jima prominence (Reagan vs the air traffic controllers, and Thatcher vs the coal miners), the neo-liberal victory over militant trade unions demoralised the whole labour movement, sent trade union membership into freefall (aided by structural changes in the economy) and juiced up a “globalisation” which imported cheap foreign labour through ‘open borders’ and off-shored domestic industry to cheap labour countries.
Bereft of its crucial labour support base, a left that once defined itself by the principle of ‘class struggle’ now reaches out to a coalition of the social fringes, what Hillary Clinton extolled as a “rainbow of discontents” who primarily define themselves by race, ethnicity, sex and other identity classification rather than class.
In this break-up between the left and the working class, the left did a reverse ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ routine and blamed the working class for the moral and political failings (‘White privilege,’ ‘toxic masculinity’ and other woke analytical concepts) of the relationship, woke concerns which now preoccupy most of the left.
Trump Derangement Syndrome (TDS) and Brexit/Boris Derangement Syndrome (BDS)
In response to being jilted by their long-term working class partners, most of the left has succumbed to what the right duly, and accurately, mock as political Derangement Syndromes. The democratic, populist, assertive working class revolts manifested in the Brexit/Boris and Trump electoral outcomes has seemingly traumatised the woke left which reflexively dismisses such political phenomena as racist, xenophobic and reactionary nationalist eruptions instigated by ‘far-right’ demagogues. The Trump and Brexit/Boris phenomena were wrong, ill-informed and morally bad choices, says the woke left, wilful choices made by a working class inadequately enamoured of the economic wonders of globalisation, particularly mass Third World immigration and outsourcing, and its attendant woke politics.
Implicit in every woke leftwinger’s spittle-flecked rave about how Trump, for example, is either Bozo the Clown or ‘literally Hitler’, is a distaste not just for the unlikely populist figurehead but for their voters and supporters, who are largely industrial and blue-collar working class (and still largely, and unforgivably to the woke left, white). Both the US and UK versions of Derangement Syndrome are marked by political ferocity towards all populist policies as the work of the political devil, and which are often accompanied by behavioural paroxysms of rage and resentment, incredulity and incomprehension, and intolerance and illiberalism, not to mention frequent verbal profanity. The various Derangement Syndromes allow a rejected woke left to salve the political wounds inflicted on it by its old working class base, to re-occupy the moral political heights by presenting itself as politically and morally virtuous, despite its democratic rebuffs.
From TDS and BDS to Virus Derangement Syndrome (VDS)
The seamless transition of most of the left from TDS and BDS to VDS (Virus Derangement Syndrome) is not surprising. Just as TDS and BDS allowed the left to rage against the political virus of right-wing populism, VDS licenses the left to proclaim that it is us, the left, who still deserve to be in charge of those who either suffer from ignorance (and need to be enlightened by the left-wing holders of truth on the virus/lockdown), or are stupid (congenitally incapably of grasping ‘The Science’ of social distancing) or who are simply Bad People who choose to be immoral, elder-killing delinquents for the sake of their own convenience and pay packets, and who thus deserve to be shamed and demonised for wrongthink on the virus/lockdown.
The cavalier dismissal of the disastrous economic fallout for the working class (and for the global poor) arising from lockdown is the seedy terminus for a left which has swapped class struggle in favour of woke culture wars and identity politics. As millions of workers join the dole queue and lose their freedoms and civil liberties under lockdown, the left is consumed by statuary, ostentatious BLM histrionics, ‘cancel culture’, transgenderism, ‘believe all women’ and the other woke fads of identity politics.
For the left to drop what should have been easy home games (on favourable economic grounds of lockdown-caused recession, unemployment, etc.) against a third-tier virus opponent, is an existential political crisis for the left if ever there was one.
Can the left learn from its self-made political disaster of embracing the damaging lunacy of lockdown?
It will be hard to admit error for a left (as with so much of the scientific, political, media and cultural elite) which is so heavily invested in the myth of an apocalyptic virus necessitating draconian lockdown. Political humility is a rare commodity across the left-right spectrum, and the lockdown left is in the same cognitive-psychological space as were those who were strong supporters of invading Iraq because of (mythical) WMDs and who still believe that WMDs were indeed found after the invasion. So, too, does the left have so much political capital tied to the ‘war’ on the virus that the mythology that lockdown actually saved lives will forever inform the dominant narrative of lockdown as a triumphant vindication of the lockdown left’s ‘lives ahead of money’ strategy. Any self-reflection by the lockdown left will be drowned out by the racket of self-congratulation for supporting lockdown and, indeed, for being more hard-line on lockdown than reluctant and half-hearted lockdown conservatives.
There are some leftist heartbeats being detected amongst the lockdown rubble, however. Lockdown Sceptics, for example, has flushed out a heartening number of dissident leftists who oppose the deadly nonsense of lockdown (and who, if they’re anything like me, get a little buzz of political dopamine from each issue). New life for the left could yet emerge from the political crisis of lockdown.
Although it is far easier for the left to never agree with the right on anything, it is possible for the left and the right to agree to be all grown-up and adult on what divides us whilst working productively on opposing, and learning from, the disaster of lockdown. Breaking bread with your traditional enemies does carry political risk (to which the ex-leftists which litter the political landscape testify) but any fear of lockdown scepticism being a conservative Trojan Horse is overblown. Strange lockdown times make for strange political bedfellows but if the greatest political blunder and economic own goal in living political memory doesn’t throw up some novel and much needed political couplings, then what will? And who knows what new political charms and pleasures we may discover in each other’s arms?