1: The Rebirth of the Future

[This is the first in a series of three ‘Covid Reflections’ from Resident Human]

I wanted to take some time to put together some thoughts that have been coalescing since early on in the crisis, but like so many things, have felt trapped in some kind of infinite loop, despite a wealth of time, mentality I have found a paucity of space in which to think things. The slightly dream-like quality of the whole situation, particularly for those lucky enough to be cushioned against the worst of it by jobs that let us continue from home and houses lucky enough to have room for a desk had the distinct feel of some kind of house arrest without any of the searing resentment with the world that locked us up that might have made for a more creative incarceration. 

Only now as I’m emerging from that, becoming more busy rather than less, does it feel like I can actually finish thinking the thoughts I started sometime in April. One friend I caught up with during the height of the UK’s first act of the Coronavirus (there will certainly be more, if not a full Shakespearean quintet, but they’ll almost certainly be a second) described the feeling as the 83rd of March; time had both moved on but had not progressed. 

I am not complaining, those of us whose lives took on this formlessness were the lucky ones, this featureless desert was an oasis compared to crowded vistas that so many people had to deal with, littered with dark monuments; underemployment, unemployment, illness, death. But at the same time, the quality of stasis, feeling like a bullet fired upwards hanging indefinitely at its highest point, or a cartoon character, having run off the cliff, but yet to look down, hasn’t been conducive to productivity. Though maybe that is a good thing. As I slowly reanimate at the close of this first act, one of the many things I am questioning is how productive ‘being productive’ is.

  1. The rebirth of the future

There are many reasons to hate Elon Musk. From his rejection of the sacred urban social contract that is public transport embodies to his ridiculous online grandstanding to his fuelling of tired conspiracy theories about aliens building the pyramids of Egypt. Or maybe you detest him as a cipher for everything that is wrong with late-stage global capitalism; his parlaying of one lucky break at PayPal into a stream of much-lauded, high profile cash-incineration enterprises. You could be one of those who prefer the minority/feminist critique; if Elon was Elaine, or black for that matter, you think he would still raise money or have his job, leading a publicly listed company after the 420 tweet or smoking weed with Joe Rogan? Or calling a cave rescue diver a paedophile? Or you may just be annoyed by his mediocre, mid-level tech-bro wannabes, the Reddit squad that praise everything he does and see him as some kind of messanic genius (despite Brexity-tax dodger, and newly minted Singaporean,  Sir James Dyson holding 124x more patents that Musk; 2732 to Elon’s 22.)

 

I don’t hate Elon Musk for those things though I do dislike them; I despise him because he represents a world devoid of a future. Musk’s great innovations are part of a version of progress that does little to reimagine what the world could be, but simply projects forward what it is now. It is the same defeatism that made the film Interstellar so disappointing; ‘the Earth is fucked, let’s find a new one’. Writer and theorist Murray Bookchin (h/t Alex Holland) describes this perfectly in a speech from 1978 (!) where he draws an important distinction between ‘Utopia’ and ‘Futurism’. I would recommend you read the piece as it is searingly relevant now and far more electric than my precis. 

 

Rockets to Mars, flying cars and cheeseburgers delivered by drone are all what Bookchin terms “Futurism, [which] is the present as it exists today, projected, one hundred years from now”. What instead he calls for is Utopia; radically altering our present in order to chart a new course for tomorrow. Without wanting to sound like the ‘mysterious wizard’ archetype in a moralising cartoon, his core thesis is that the path humanity will take is not preordained. But so far, the last few decades have demonstrated that a global elite dominated by tinkering technocrats and tech disruptors simply playing around the edges, selling a bland incrementalism as disruption; more interested in D than R, rearranging deckchairs while the ship is holed deep below the waterline, sinking fast. 

 

I trained as a historian, so I am reluctant to throw around ‘unprecedented’ casually, but crises are a powerful tool to break deadlocks. The ‘all bets are off’ disturbance of the discourse that this global pandemic has brought about is opening up the possibility of other ways of doing, of being. It takes a seismic event to break up our (in)exorable march and make us stop and wonder; what are we marching towards. The pandemic is indeed a crisis, but as an interruption to our normal programming, it also presents an opportunity. As people talk about the ‘new normal’, there is also a chance to set ‘new norms’ – governments across Europe took vast swathes of their workforce onto the state’s payroll, cities were briefly more liveable than ever before as people took to their bikes, whilst songbirds took to the sky. It was – it is – a time of huge anxiety, uncertainty and for those who have lost family, sadness – I am not trying to pretend that isn’t the case – but it was also a time for hope. We were allowed a glimpse of what kind of tomorrow an alternative today could gift us, seductively hinting at something very different to Elon’s world. As the world returns to the new normal, Futurism still looks like the most likely outcome, but with this ‘rebirth of the future’ precipitated by this crisis, there is now the possibility of another way.

A Little More Human

The problem with a ‘semi-professional’ blog – ie. one partially related to my work, not one that earns anything – that aspires to cultural critique is that it’s easy in times like this to sound all too, well, critical. But amongst all the tension and anxiety and uncertainty there are moments of such incredibly profound humanity that it felt worth reflecting on those and what they could mean. So often it’s the small gestures, the quiet voice in the raging storm that speaks to some truth. Bear with me though, as if you’ve read any of the rest of my blog, you’ll know that ‘earnest’ is not a well-practised register for me.

Though locking people out of their places of business and depriving people of delineation between home and work – and for those without the luxury of extra space, a kitchen table – is by no means a gift, the current ‘Work at Home’ measures in spite of, or perhaps because of, the life-logistical problems they pose have injected a much greater tolerance into the  ‘workplace’. Manager, Clients, Juniors, Directors all become ‘people’ first. Despite any number of ironic wallpapers available, the vast majority of calls I have been on have shown people’s homes in their actuality, complete with family members or housemates walking in and out and children occasionally chipping in. Messy rooms undercut the stern perception of the office pedants and the once-ritualistic ‘how are yous’ seem more genuine, more real. Despite many columnists – the reclusive writers opining from oven-ready home offices – continuing to churn out paeans praising work from home as the ‘new normal’, many of the rest of us look forward to getting out of our flats and our slippers and into the workplace. But this experience will mean that that office is a more flexible and more human one after we have all aired our dirty laundry, quite literally, during this experience.

I have been very vocal in my objections to the rhetoric of the ‘indiscriminate’ virus; it does not affect us all equally. However, what is worth remembering is that it does affect us all. And after a recent ramble around the common in one of London’s more uncommonly affluent corners, even the ‘gardened-classes’ are starting to struggle. A few knots of middle-aged loiterers with pre-canned G&Ts and swarms of unleashed dogs reflect an increasingly less performative common sense approach to keeping the pandemic under some kind of control. More eye-contact, less judgement, more tolerance, fewer tuts. It seems that as the self-righteous start to sin, so we all gain a little more room to breathe.

The uncertainty is also proving to be a boom for trust, not just in each other – as seen through neighbourhood support groups and jigsaw exchanges – but also in experts. It is a small consolation that after a time of such rampant division and partisanship, in Britain we can at least agree that science still exists and that the BBC offers some kind of approximation of a truth that we can all agree on.  At least no-one here is gathering in groups to protest measures designed to stop them dying. Is there a ‘class-action’ equivalent of a Darwin Award?

At the same time cultural institutions are showcasing their talent and their people. From the National Theatre to Ken Loach, the humour and humanity of art act as beacons to light us through dark times.

I want to make it clear; this is not ‘the blitz spirit’ or a nation unified. This is something more subtle, more unique and more fragile. People and policies will be needed to bolster whatever it’s to become if it is to become something, but at least there might be something there after the worst has passed.

 

A Just War of Words?

I once started an undergraduate essay on the linguistic turn with a pop-cultural epigraph; ‘It’s only words, and words are all I have, to take your heart away’. My tutor, a soft-spoken son of the Sixties whose low, melodic cadences were a cross between a late night jazz radio announcer and Dylan, the stoner rabbit from the Magic Roundabout, told me it was “wonderful polemic, but a poor contribution to academe”. I confess that this was probably the highest praise I receive during my time at university, and I am convinced to this day that the low 2.2 which the essay garnered, was, in the main, down to the misattribution of the above quote to Boyzone rather than the brothers Gibb; the folly of youth. But the thought that words, however imperfect they are, are all we have, is an important one; particularly during the time of Covid. The virus is a fact, but how it is communicated, the words we choose to use, frame it and give it meaning.

“Unprecedented” (adj.)
1. Never having happened or existing in the past
2. Having happened or existed in the past but been studiously ignored

A fatal disease, passed to humans by bats you say?

Stand up Ebola 2014-2016. Luckily for the rich world, West Africans don’t travel as much as we do to China or East Asia does to the rest of the planet. Partly because of the nature of Ebola (tl;dr: it kills too fast to travel easily) and the ease with which we could erect a cordon sanitaire around Guinea, Sierra Leone and the other states at the centre of the outbreak without needing to apply the breaks to the global economy, we have conveniently forgotten about this one. And please don’t quote the official death toll; estimates say up to 70% of cases went unreported…and this is a disease with a 40% kill-ratio.

If this is a little too exotic, then we have the 1889-1890 Flu outbreak; est. 1 million deaths worldwide, The 1918-1920 Spanish (H1N1) Flu’s 17-100million, 1957’s global H2N2 with 1+ million, 1968’s H3N2 picking off between 1-4million, 2001’s swine flu outbreak which was around 500,000. Even the winter 2017-18 US flu season merits a special mention, a particularly bad year with 80,000+ deaths in the States. A current outbreak of measles in the Democratic Republic of Congo is currently estimated to be around 250 thousand cases with 6000 deaths and counting, but y’know Africa, so no big deal? And Aids. 32million dead. And counting. I haven’t even bothered adding SARS. So this is by no means unprecedented (link).

And nor was it unforeseen. The WHO, civil servants and public health experts have been waiting for this for a while, a so-called Disease X that could rip through our interconnected world. According to Bill Clinton’s former Public Health advisor, they had even played out this scenario during this administration in the 90s. Apparently there is a playbook based on their learnings. Maybe someone could tweet it to Donald.

‘War’ (n)
1. An armed fighting between two or more countries or groups
2. A metaphor deployed by politicians to suppress dissent
See also ‘battle’, ‘fight’, and ‘beat’.

Make no mistake, this virus is not out to get you. It is not personal. SARS-Cov-2 did not wake up one day and say ‘Fuck this bat, lets go mess with those fleshy skin bags carrying those weird little mirrors all the time’. This is not a war. But it helps to remember the politics of waging war when leaders decide to clothe a crisis in it’s rhetoric. Wars have time and again been framed as moral enterprises. Battles against good and evil. World War II and the Cold War loom particularly large for a generation of leaders who are old enough to romanticise, but not old enough to remember; particularly for conservatives, the second world war looms just out of reach, a fog of ‘better days’ constantly clutched at that seems to vanish at their touch. For them Covid is a chance to have their own ‘finest hour’ and rally the nation round the status quo. No questions please, when we are battling to fulfil our manifest destiny!

But this is not a War. We cannot ‘beat’ Covid-19. We are staying at home to manage it, or rather to manage our health service and collective resources. Until there is a cure, that is all we can do. Likewise, for the individual, expecting them to ‘fight’ this is absurd. You can’t wish yourself well no more than you can think yourself 5 kilos lighter or dream yourself rich. Emily Maitliss skewers this brilliantly on her recent Newsnight opening which is possibly the best piece of journalism of this pandemic so far; “You do not survive the illness through fortitude and strength of character, whatever the prime minister’s colleagues will tell us”

But, a little rhetorical advice to the politicians out there; if you must use a war metaphor, do so advisidely; it may be your fault there are no guns and steel to fight these germs.

‘Social Distancing’ (n.)
1. The act of maintaining a safe distance from others in order to slow the spread of infectious disease
2. A misdirectionary phrase employed, intentionally or otherwise, to further create division and atomisation in society at large
See also ‘self-isolating’ and the creeping authoritarianism of ‘lockdown’

The strategist in me hates this phrase. Do you say your parents are socially distanced when you move to another town? Are you ‘socially close’ to the person next to you in the Tesco queue under normal circumstances? Have you felt less in love (or lust) with a partner (or lover) who was separated by mountains or oceans? No? Good. In which case we are ‘Physically Distancing’ to manage this disease. It’s an inversion of the nasty little sleight-of-hand that is ‘credit card’ (It’s not as easy to begin that death-spiral of high interest loans that starts with Visa and ends with Wonga or the Pawn shop when you’re charging that widescreen telly to your ‘Debt Card’…)

Please, to go and prove that we are not socially distanced at all, pick up the phone and tell someone that you love them.
Now.

‘All in it together’(idiom)
1. A group are drawn to each other to share a burden because of a common cause
2. A way to spread blame thinly so that it cannot be easily apportioned

Wait, I remember this one. Osbourne and Cameron. Tory Conference. 2012. Austerity.
Yes, that was the same ‘all in it together’ that decimated the NHS, cut local authority budgets, disproportionately affected the poor, leaving them more vulnerable to, for example, a pandemic that disproportionately affects the poor. ‘All in it together’ is the velvet glove that is meant to make sure that no-one questions the political decision made to throttle certain parts of society in order to service the national debt. Just to make it very clear. Economic policy is a political decision. The economy serves the polis, not the other way round.

Redeployed a second time in tragedy, it seeks to depoliticise policy and leave us all holding some kind of collective can for the fallout of this disease. It inevitably steamrollers over the differing outcomes that emergency policies precipitate based on where you live, what sector you work in, the life that you were able to build in this society before Covid-19. The kind of society that we shaped; through the ballot box, the press, public sentiment and social media.

There is no question that currently, in the UK and around the world, we need to pull together to ‘Get Covid Done’ but once we have got through the worst of this, we need to ensure that clever rhetoric now doesn’t stop us asking the smart questions later.

‘Key Workers’ (n. pl.)
1. Members of the job force that are vital to a country’s economy and or society
2. Members of the job force that previously no-one realised were vital to a country’s economy and daily life

Maitliss lands this as the second blow of her opening one-two punch on Newsnight. Those who cannot or cannot be allowed to work from home are the ones who keep the jigsaw puzzles arriving from Amazon, the Trebiano from Ocado, the rubbish from blocking the view of the heath or mopping up Great Aunt Ermintrude’s piss. A lot of them are foreign or brown or poor, or all of the above. Until this kicked off, barely a thought was spared for those Dickensian jobs that keep our modern world running. Who still knows the name of their post-person? Anyone, anyone?

Until anyone close to us got ill, even the NHS was more of an abstract concept than a tangible thing, to be celebrated in surreal and nightmarish Danny Boyle set-pieces and Call the Midwife. Now suddenly comes the realisation that it isn’t some abstract performance piece, but a living breathing multi-personed organism that we were slowly killing with neglect while lyricsing its ideal. And it’s also full of diligent, hardworking and often highly skilled, foreign workers who previously felt like they were getting chased out of the country.

So clap if you must. Clap as a moment of unity. Clap so that you don’t feel so alone. Clap because otherwise the neighbours will notice. But remember who you were meant to be so grateful for when you can go back to the pub to complain about immigrants.

Words matter. Especially now.

A Very British Lockdown

A smartphone frames a fat grey London pigeon zig-zagging towards its camera. The afternoon sun casts shadows of branches above and the bird below across the paving stones. As the bird beats a path towards the lens, tacking right then left, the brown booted foot of the cameraman kicks out from below the frame. As the bird skitters away, we hear their reproach, laconic, direct, estuarine; ‘Two metres, Cunt.’
Welcome to a Very British Lockdown.

As the nation embraces panic-buying as a dynamic new format for a stolid old sport, a retail T20 set to revitalise traditional Test Match queuing, columnists poeticise the pleasures and sorrows of the ‘stay-at-home boozer’ (larger pours, fewer pulls) whilst weekend supplements cynically push recipes for homemade yogurts and sourdough-starters whilst Hackney is at its most vulnerable. Across the country, Wetherspoons branches are being vandalised as many take the opportunity to exact a long awaited vengeance on Tim Martin’s ‘Ryanair of Pubs’ and The Zoom Arms has become our Moon Under Water. My very own Hangout Tavern hosted its inaugural pub quiz last Friday, with competitors from places as far flung as Hong Kong, New Zealand and Cornwall. The winner – Team Corona Loner – walked away with a pack of Donald Trump toilet paper, delivered courtesy of our sponsors, Amazon Prime. But this is now in danger of turning into a parody of one of those very columns…

The experience so far of ‘Lockdown London’ contrasts sharply with that of Shenzhen, where until a few weeks ago I was based; like comparing Butlins to Belmarsh. In the Southern Chinese megacity, streets were ghostly empty and many friends had not left their homes for weeks. The only vehicles on the street were the ubiquitous Meituan electric delivery scooters, speeding silently across concrete overpasses like lost yellow ghosts in an oversize game of Pac-Man. After fear and repression turned Hubei province into a dumpster fire, the People’s Republic was using their most powerful tools to try and right that wrong; fear and repression. Red-arm-banded apparatchiks positioned at every apartment complex and building were taking the temperatures of anyone who did venture out, and were unsympathetic in removing the symptomatic. The indistinct but persistent threat of China’s social credit system, buzzing overhead like an unseen Reaper drone, ensured that few bothered; Xi’s digital panopticon at work. Ironically the coercion and compliance meant those that were out were relatively free to roam, leaving me starring in their very own post-apocalyptic short in the most future-imperfect of cities. But let me state now that this will not be an exercise in public health top-trumps, before Singapore, the Hitlerjugend Hermione Granger of international relations sticks up their hand to tell us the answer. No-one likes a swot, especially not one in jackboots.

By comparison, Britain has been relaxed. Too relaxed at first it seems. Restrictions have steadily ramped-up in proportion to ‘our defiant spirit’, as many initially saw staying at home as ‘letting the virus win’. The problem with war metaphors is that they assume malice on the part of a lipid-coated strand of replicating RNA. Haters gonna hate, viruses gonna replicate; it’s not personal. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, our era’s own children’s party Churchill (‘we will fight them on the bouncy castle, we shall fight them in the ball pits…’) is finally having his chance to shine by putting a ‘freedom loving people’ under an increasingly restrictive house-arrest, fulfilling two classic Tory wank-fantasies at the same time; a good old fashioned national emergency, and the chance to incarcerate the poorest in inhumane conditions. Calling Covd-19 indiscriminate is disingenuous; it follows the ley lines of our own structural prejudice and past political decisions. Targeting those with poor nutrition, those who are badly housed or those in fuel poverty with laser guided precision. The pre-existing conditions that are key comorbidities are as likely to follow economic predisposition as genetic. The virus may not be animate, but it is alive to our iniquities.

The problem with the idea that we are ‘all in it together’ is that there is no ‘we’. There is a woolly belief amongst some that this crisis will be some kind of catalyst for the healing of the country, a ‘bringing together’ of a fractured nation. There is perhaps some cause to hope. As this ‘war’ places the NHS at the heart rather than the military, it is much more universal. The health service touches almost everyone’s lives at some point and is staffed by individuals from across the geographical, racial and class spectrums. It is in truth, the last common touchpoint that Britain has left in an increasingly dissociated marketplace of culture and ideas. Yet, as this emergency goes on, inequalities are more sharply exposed. It is hard to maintain an idea that we all stand together when we are told to stand two metres apart and every cough brings the suspicion that someone is a carrier. We can stand on our doorsteps and bang pots until we have beaten them into cymbals, but even in that moment, each household stands alone and faced with their own unique uncertainties.

In the first part of his essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’, George Orwell praises the English as a ‘highly differentiated’ people with a ‘respect for constitutionalism and legality. Orwell’s own description of a country where ‘the liberty of the individual is still believed in…the liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time, to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen from above’ is echoed in Boris “Poundland Churchill” Johnson’s ‘freedom loving people’ schtick, but the perverse logic of this virus is that we are having those leisures and amusements dictated, as well as our movement restricted. And after initial resistance, many have embraced this new reality. Faced with looming uncertainty, many have been quick to welcome the false security of a world of reduced choices. But just as the virus follows the paths which our own societal choices have laid out, so has our embrace of unfreedom been stratified by class. For every white collar professional showing off their shiny new ‘work-from-home’ set-up, there is a family with two-bedrooms too few and a few bills too many, where school was the most important meal of the day and a trip to the shops meant getting out from under the shadow of home. Even China, where many crimes committed within a marriage are not criminal, reported a three-fold increase in domestic violence during the lockdown in Hubei. And that is just what was reported.

In this light, the situation takes on a particularly nasty edge. The loss of freedom is not a particularly hard cross to bear for those that have enough room to be fine with confinement. Waitrose baskets take on a jolly agro-millenarian air as trolleys stacked with cracked bulgur wheat and pinot gris waft back to the Range Rover. Meanwhile the oh what a lovely war attitude continues for those ‘isolating’ in second homes (weren’t they already though?), and in leafy outer-city suburbs, two-acre gardeners berate walkers flouting the two-metre rule, conveniently overlooking that we’d all be only too glad to stay at home if our homes looked like theirs. “Lockdown shaming” has all the ingredients to be the perfect palette cleanser for middle class authoritarianism, an entree to ‘Totalitarianism-lite’ (Slogan: ‘I can’t believe it’s not constitutional…? Can you…?’). Combining sanctimonious compliance, with armchair epidemiology, and a righteous defence of the NHS, our ‘one true faith’; It might just be the fascism that Middle England has been waiting for.

Across parks and commons, passive-aggressive distancing markers are neatly chalked along pathways. Some boroughs have relegated joggers to ‘off-road’ to make room for the more genteel pastime of dog-walking. Those with cars are freer to move whilst non-essential use of public transport is now seen as hacking great globules of spittle in the face of our ICU nurses – Literally – proving, for those who have forgone the urban luxury of owning a car, that no good deed does ever go truly unpunished. This weekend, whilst out cycling, I came to a car stopped atop a humped zebra crossing, it’s driver deep in conversation with a friend on the opposite side of the road. Whilst passing, I quipped ‘nice parking’ and was met with a string of invective outlining why I should not be out, and ‘how dare I’, clearly peeved at having their catch-up interrupted by the flow of traffic. As I rode that afternoon, I passed a number of ‘socially distanced’ doorstep cups of tea and G and Ts. Nice if you have a front door and a doorstep to call your own. There seems to be a lot of ‘how dare they’ at the moment, especially from those who are best equipped to implement these kinds of work-arounds which highlights the flaws in the ‘all in it together’ rhetoric as sharply as David Geffen’s Instagram. It’s worth noting there is a 6 point difference between ABC1 and C2DE on the matter of whether this crisis has united the nation or pushed us further apart. Expect this to widen.

As tensions increase and high street queues becoming increasingly fractious, and judgements about the actions and reactions of others to these strange times become less and less implicit, I can’t help feeling that there is a certain section of Britain who has been waiting a long time for this; an entitled subset who expect that we will all comply but is happy to take this opportunity to have the builders come and re-tile the roof; who will embrace ID checks at the train stations while driving the dogs many miles to take them on their favourite long walk; people who expect conformity to restrictions which may not be restrictive to them at all, and have little empathy for those who stray while just trying to stay safe or sane. It reminds me of the self-proclaimed ‘Riot Wombles’ after the 2011 London disturbances, the distinctly middle-class groups (#OperationCupOfTea #MugsNotThugs) who took to the streets with brooms to voluntarily help clear up; silently disapproving of the disorder and wilfully ignorant of its underlying causes, let alone the part they played in them. Because they were just ‘getting on with things’, why couldn’t everyone else?

But blanket statements such as these are thrown over the existing topographies of inequality like a rug over a pachyderm. The same terms and conditions result in very different outcomes, leaving those who are most free the most enthusiastic to embrace unfreedom. But if we really are in this together we should be considering how we created this socio-economic landscape in the first place, not gleefully berating those who are stuck in its deepest fissures. We need to reflect on why the NHS need such careful handling to balance such limited capacity. We need to ask ourselves why there are so many precariat ‘freelancers’ who lack even the savings to weather a month without work, or why free school meals are such a vital lifeline for many families.

A crisis is often the pivot around which history turns.
The question is which way we will turn during this one.