Glenn Armstrong discusses capitalism within modern society.
Saying this pandemic has accelerated numerous, separate societal trends and exposed various racial, gender and economic inequalities has become a cliché. This cliché, however, reveals our instinct to analyse society by dividing it into separate spheres rather than considering the unified whole.
As millions pray to scientific gods for epidemiological answers, our desire to splice society into separate trends, to try and understand the mosaic by mistakenly focusing on individual tiles, highlights how deeply the scientific method has embedded itself.
Simply put, this method of analysis through division has become dangerously monolithic, limiting our ability to consider society as the interaction of co-dependent currents and therefore our ability to recognise humanity’s long-term course produced by these currents. Wordsworth captured the danger in exclusively analysing the world by dividing it:
‘Our meddling intellect/Misshapes the beauteous forms of things;/-We murder to dissect’.
Admittedly, 2020 seems far from ‘beauteous’, but Wordsworth demonstrates how rational, ‘intellect’, when applied to the river of human society, can ‘murder’ our understanding of its ultimate, ‘form’ by artificially dividing it into self-contained tributaries.
When figures showed that BAME people were twice as likely to die from Covid-19 as white people, for weeks, ministers emphasised BAME comorbidity rates, considering biological explanations alone rather than the interplay of other factors like the rate of ethnic minorities in deprived areas or working in jobs dangerous during a pandemic or where they are less secure in taking time off to self-isolate. The biological tile was in focus, obscuring the mosaic which could have revealed the long-term consequences for minorities of an unequal economic and social system.
This, ‘murder to dissect’ method feeds and is fed by 21st century capitalism’s short-termism, limiting our belief that society can or should produce a radically different future.
The idea that our present-day ailments can be separated and treated individually without considering the fundamental durability of the whole body is symptomatic of two modern views of capitalism.
The first view is of arrogance. The asset-rich and committed neoliberals sincerely believe that economic and societal maladies can be individually treated because the capitalist body remains sound; short-term tweaks may be needed, but capitalism is and will be our sunset future.
The second is one of pessimism. The asset-poor and insecure recognise that the capitalist body is systemically injury-prone, but see it as the body with which humanity is stuck; short-term bandages may stop today’s bleeding, but all we can do is temporarily patch up our unimprovable body.
Both views distort modern capitalism from a contingent outcome of our present historical moment into our inevitable and unalterable state.
Many have written about austerity’s contribution to the UK’s lack of pandemic preparedness, but that decade-long project also entrenched short-term decision-making into our politics. It systematically sacrificed resilience for efficiency, long-term sustainability for present-day book balancing. There is a reason why public health reserves have been cut since 2013; in the world of short-term survival, politicians cannot recognise long-term potential dangers, making such reserves easy pickings.
The cultural theorist Mark Fisher explained how neoliberalism’s 40-year dominance has extended short-term decision-making beyond politics into people’s lives; ‘the big lie sold to us by neoliberalism is that if we withdraw security from people, suddenly this wellspring of creativity will emerge. If you remove security from people, all their creative energy goes into thinking, ‘how can I make money?’’. Anneliese Dodds captured the consequences of this, emphasising how a ¼ of families entered this crisis with less than £100 in savings; millions are walking a tightrope focused only on whether they’ll fall off the next day rather than whether they’ll ever have a future on safe ground.
With this total crisis leaving no element of society unscathed, the impetus to unify our artificial tributaries into one river, to move our focus from the individual tiles and try to understand the whole societal mosaic has never been so great. However, our analytical instinct is to parcel off society’s short-term issues either with belief in capitalism’s perpetual strength or with resignation about its inevitable failings.
These views have the same effect; the cancellation of non-capitalist futures.
Glenn Armstrong is 18 and has just finished school. He is hoping to study History and Politics at Oxford. More of his writing can be found at https://humanifestogroup.wordpress.com/‘.