By Antony Ernst
So here we are, either in isolation, or in preparation for isolation, or, in some cases, compulsively buying toilet paper for when the – respiratory - virus hits. All over the world, normality has been suspended. Governments are trying to deal with a phenomenon which is threatening the foundations of society.
What strikes me is that when the chips are down, it’s interesting that governments are suddenly realising that their precious economies are made up of things called people, who act together in a thing called society. It’s not the economy which is going to see us through this crisis. The economy is already cactus – it is not designed to deal with truly abnormal circumstances. It is society. Indeed, it is culture. What’s stopping the Italians going batshit crazy? It’s singing songs from balconies. What’s making isolation bearable? It’s books, films, TV, music, games, podcasts, livestreams – hell, phone conversations and skype calls. In a word, culture. Remember this, everyone. When you can’t participate in the economy any more, what you need in order to survive is culture.
All of a sudden, it is becoming clear that keeping people housed, fed, healthy, sane, informed, stimulated, able to function and able to be people together is the actual basic purpose of government. It’s not about looking after businesses, because without the people to make them work, either as employees or customers, they cease to have any meaning. Unlike what everyone claimed in the GFC, they’re not too big to fail. What’s too big to fail is society – that thing which neoliberal orthodoxy would have us believe doesn’t exist except as fodder for the economy. Profits for companies suddenly seem a little less crucial when the people who earn them the profits – our society – are themselves existentially threatened. In Spain, suddenly the private health sector has been requisitioned. In Italy, the national airline has been renationalised. In several countries, utility bills have been suspended, internet is free, and medical access has been expanded. All over the world, sick leave and unemployment relief is being instituted because, although it was always needed, now it is apparent to even the most conservative economists that if people have no money, economies fail. And do you know what? We’re doing it because it’s necessary, and it’s more important than corporate profits.
It took a pandemic to make it clear, but now it’s clear, let’s remember it. Giving billionaires tax breaks doesn’t work. Giving poor people an income to live on does. Understand that it is society which needs to be looked after, not banks, not mining companies, not tax-dodging multinationals. They have their own boards, and they are liability limited companies - because it is their job to risk failure. Society is too big to fail, and so it has a government instead, to do those things for all of us which we as a society need for the benefit of all of us, but can’t each of us achieve individually. My plea is that, once this is all over, we should all remember this. Remember that governments are there to ensure the wellbeing of their people. All of them. That, when the chips are down, is their actual one and only job. And to do that, government needs to have the tools to do it. It needs to have the healthcare, the social security, the education, the research institutions, the infrastructure, the broadcasters, the information systems, and yes, the cultural establishments to make life possible and worthwhile. All of the things which particularly Anglo-Saxon governments, particularly in Murdoch-press-dominated countries, have been systematically undermining for years. And, underneath it all, in order to have a functioning, resilient, durable society, we need a functioning, resilient, durable environment.
Society is too big to fail. That means its foundations in the natural world must at all costs be preserved and restored. This is just a teaser of what the future will be like if we don’t get our collective act together now: we should actually pause for a moment here and note that, as far as pandemics go, coronavirus is a non-event. It doesn’t rate: and yet, look at what it has done to us. Can you imagine what sort of state we’d be in if it were Ebola or, heaven forbid, the Black Death - a plague where, by the time you’re symptomatic, you’re to all intents and purposes beyond treatment, and have infected everyone around you?
Let’s take this opportunity to learn, to understand what is really important, and to make sure that the lessons of this time are not forgotten, but become the basis for a new enlightenment which holds the world, its people and their culture at the heart of its values and its priorities.
18 March 2020