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The Populists and the Pandemic

May 20th, 2020 | 8 min read

By Sebastian Milbank

Recently the world commemorated VE day, celebrating the vast global effort to defeat fascism, an inhuman ideology which sacrificed life on the altar of materialism. The Queen gave a speech to her quarantined subjects: declaring that ‘our streets are not empty; they are filled with the love and the care that we have for each other’. The lockdown is a terrible inconvenience for everyone, a profound psychological struggle for some, and an economic danger to the livelihoods of many. But we shouldn’t and mustn’t forget what it represents: despite everything, despite our GDP measured politics, we have globally made the decision to value not just human life over economics, but the lives of the infirm, disabled and elderly over the material interests of the able-bodied.

That the world could make such a moral choice was far from certain. Britain and America in particular hovered on the brink of choosing jobs over lives. The UK (guided by behavioral scientists and dodgy advisors steeped in quasi-eugenic theory) initially flirted with the now-infamous ‘herd immunity’ strategy whereby we would have locked up the most vulnerable whilst the young and fit would have carried on as normal.

And yet shockingly, many on the right, including many ‘traditional conservatives’ and populists who rhetorically take on economic elites, have consistently cast doubt not only on the (arguable) question of whether the danger of Covid19 is exaggerated, but have suggested that a few thousand lives are a price worth paying to prevent economic collapse. It’s disturbing that supposed critics of liberalism (most of them Christians) should not be able to make the basic moral distinction between allowing the terrible lonely death by disease of the most vulnerable and (I will grant) the very real difficulties and sufferings of the economic price of preventing those deaths.

Moreover, what a vast failure of imagination, what a revealing moral retreat, is represented by the notion of a crude choice to be made between life and prosperity. This crisis, as terrible and burdensome as it is for everyone, represents a tremendous opportunity, a departure from a norm that seemed inescapable.

The machine of perpetual commerce that we were assured could not be stopped to save the planet, has been stopped, and emissions have sunk; pollution has cleared from the skies, the hum of traffic has stilled and the sound of birds has replaced it. Those turning the most basic wheels of the real economy – the lorry drivers, nurses, policemen, shelf stackers, binmen, postmen and factory workers – have been thrust into the spotlight. It is a gain that we have realized that the ordinary can be heroic.

Thus in an extraordinary global moment a resuscitated politics tackled economics to the ground. This should be an opportunity for socialists, environmentalists, paleo-cons, populists of left and right, to point and cry ‘Look! It is possible to do things differently, if the will exists’. It should be the chance for a wave of innovative policy proposals, new economic and ecological models, a new consensus on the global movement of capital and labour.

None of that, so far, looks like happening on any significant scale. That environmentalists and socialists (left populists if you will) should waste a crisis can hardly be a surprise for those who remember 2008. But for the populist right to be caught flat-footed after a decade of going from strength to strength, ably turning every crisis to its benefit, seems unbelievable.

But it’s less unbelievable if you don’t think about the right populists as committed ideologues, and instead see them as opportunists, often members of the economic and political elite themselves, who don’t want to revolutionize the system so much as take advantage of waves of popular anger to establish new elites, and further their own interests. Trump’s obsession with the stock market is indicative of a right-wing populism that is rhetorically against Wall Street but is in reality in its thrall. For young radicals of left and right, bursting with new ideas, impatient with a system that locks many of them into a lifetime of debt, disruption looks like a good deal, a risk worth taking. But for a generation of comfortable, cosseted commentators, blowhards and armchair demagogues actual mass disruption – actual change – is terrifying.

They rightly, but disingenuously, point to the real human consequences of disruption and economic chaos, but signally fail to see the excessive vulnerability of large parts of the working population to even far smaller economic shocks as a sign of a broken economic system.

In this respect it’s easy to complain about mass migration, especially in the full knowledge that the likely policy outcomes of populist movements will be more insecure and even more low-paid migrant labour, rather than anything approaching abolition of immigration. Meanwhile the more dangerous and invisible mass migration – of barely regulated capital across borders, often shifted by machine and algorithm rather than even the momentary cocaine-fueled calculations of a stockbroker – is ignored and in fact frequently abetted by populists who must often rely on fiscal dumping to support their selective public expenditure programs.

The knee-jerk hostility to decisive state action on behalf of the common good (for example, preventing us from being a society where the elderly die of avoidable suffocation), and to international level co-operation and governance shown by denizens of the allegedly ‘radical right’ is indicative of their real commitments. They are but thinly disguised by automatic skepticism concerning ecology and the current need for a lockdown just because those positions happen to be overwhelmingly supported by the ‘progressive left’. It is all too easy, and often pleasurable, to lament the inexorable depletion of our culture by the perverse anti-culture of liberal modernity. It is much less comfortable to will the wrecking of the mechanism by which it does so – the soulless machine of capitalism.

Still more disturbing is the apparent embrace of conservatism as thanatology. I won’t shame any of the authors, but a whole succession of eminent conservative commentators have said, in various ponderous think-pieces, that really at the end of the day death is a natural thing and you can do too much to delay it. Whilst that’s a cogent argument against hooking everyone up to a respirator for the last weeks of their life, it’s rather less persuasive as a case for just letting the virus carry off those too ill to survive it.

What is in effect being argued for is that trips to the author’s favored restaurant and his second cousin’s wedding are of too crucial a civilizational and moral value to be sacrificed for some old biddy gaining a few more years of weary existence in some benighted care home.

The argument that it’s not worth bringing all life to a halt in order to preserve life would be more persuasive if one actually believed that what they mean by the ‘life’ being halted was exactly the same as the ‘life’ being preserved. But in fact the former ‘life’ – is not life itself, it is prosperity, it is the continued free action of the market, and it is that which is given precedence over the actual business of human life as such.

None of these appeals to the suffering of working people are convincing from those willing to countenance the inbuilt suffering and exploitation of the present economic model, and who refuse the opportunity for economic radicalism – a radicalism that is being forced upon liberal governments worldwide.

We should be thankful that when it comes down to it we did take strong measures to put people above profits. But in many ways that decision was carried out by a kind of moral inertia, an old humanistic set of values that politicians dare not too badly transgress, but only hazily understand. The crisis has helped show us the hunger for solidarity, and yes principled self-sacrifice, that is still very much alive even in our apparently individualistic societies.

But those impulses, pure in themselves, are all too easily perverted by demagogue and technocrat alike. All too easily they can usher in a politics of surveillance, permanent emergency and medicalisation of life, that is in fact commodifying it. We may indeed end up with the worst of all possible worlds: both a loss of liberty and of human contact and a calculus of risk that still endangers most of all poorer people.

To avoid this requires a deeper politics than the surface anti-elitist rhetoric of the populists. Nor is a mere re-booting of social democracy enough – a more decentralised country like Germany, more reliant on tacit local knowledge has fared better in the crisis than a very top-down governed country like the UK. We need instead a genuinely postliberal politics prepared to put the person and not profit at the centre of our political economy. That does not mean choosing between the people and the elite, the local or the national and the international: it means the priority of the person for everyone and at every necessary level.

To put the person first means to put human flourishing first – to respect life as such yes, but also what human life is for – a fulfilled and richer life. Only on that basis can we hope to reach some sort of consensus about environmental, medical and educational priorities and about what risks have to be taken in order to live well and what risks are merely exorbitant. Without such a consensus, these decisions will be taken instead by an ever-more impersonal and technocratic oligarchy, pursuing power at once through political control of life and economic subordination of labour. It is curious that so far so much supposedly ‘dissenting’ voices are merely playing its long-term game.

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