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Tallis in Wonderland

Philosophy in the Time of Plague, Part 2

Raymond Tallis ruminates on the reckoning and the reconstruction required.

The sixty or so days of lockdown since I wrote the last column seem an age when measured by the progress of Spring from leafless trees to Philip Larkin’s ‘unresting castles’ that ‘thresh/In full grown thickness’. And yet the days seem to have followed each other at an accelerating pace. I am reminded of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, when the time traveller’s world speeds up until the sequence of day and night looks like a stroboscopic flickering. Either way, there has been plenty of time for philosophical, and rather less philosophical, brooding on the unfolding catastrophe that goes under the name of Covid-19. We have witnessed heroism and kindness, altruism and patient, attentive care. Neighbours have discovered neighbourliness, citizens have embraced civic values; individuals facing unemployment, even destitution, have taken it upon themselves to worry about the needs of vulnerable strangers. But the pandemic has also cast light on something far less attractive – in particular on our political class and the social order over which it governs. There are similar stories elsewhere, most notably in our erstwhile partner across the Atlantic, so I hope Philosophy Now’s international readership will forgive me for focusing on the small (and getting smaller) island called Britain.

The Covid story in the UK has been dire. Due to the dithering and incompetence of the government in the run-up to the lockdown, the mortality rate per capita in the UK is at the time of writing the highest in the world (though it may yet lose this unwelcome title to the United States or Brazil). According to the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development, the economic hit to the UK is also likely to be world-beating. And this despite Britain’s good fortune in being relatively late to experience the pandemic, and therefore having been given time to prepare and to learn from experience elsewhere.

Some may be surprised that a nation with a reputation for competence, good governance, and other such virtues, should have failed so disastrously to deal with the challenge presented by the virus. Those who have been watching what has been happening in the UK over the last decade do not share that surprise.

Readers with long memories may recall my cri de coeur in 2014 (‘Emergency Reflections on Political Philosophy’, Issue 105), when I reported from a protest march to defend Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) against the quadruple assault of defunding, demoralizing, dismantling, and denationalization. The most important weapon in this assault (and most costly of time and money) was the 2012 Health and Social Care Act, whose purpose was privatization of health provision. The Act made inevitable the failure of preparedness for the pandemic – as signalled in Exercise Cygnus, a simulation of a pandemic to test the resilience of health and other public services, whose 2017 report was buried. Lack of personal protective equipment for health care staff and others in various front-lines; an abysmal and continuing failure to develop a capacity to track, trace, and isolate cases; and the tens of thousands of Covid-related deaths in care homes, are tributes to the thoroughness with which health services have been trashed.

The assault on the NHS has been only the most audacious element of a decade-long dismantling of the welfare state, with unemployment and disability benefits, social care, education and other key services also being conspicuous casualties. A report published in February 2020, just before the pandemic got into its stride, Health Equity in England: The Marmot Review 10 Years On, described the toll of austerity on equity and health, and estimated 120,000 excess deaths. Soaring levels of poverty, stress, depression, malnourishment, illness, dependence on charity, wage insecurity, and degrading conditions of labour, marked the lives of a growing ‘precariat’, even before the arrival of Covid-19.

The pretext for austerity was that, after the financial crash of 2008, cuts in public services were essential to avoid unsustainable levels of public indebtedness. In fact (as has often been pointed out), austerity was not an economic necessity but an ideological choice. Martin Wolf, a senior columnist for the Financial Times (not known to be a Marxist publication), argued in ‘Crash Landing’, 2018, that “Transforming a financial crisis into a fiscal crisis confused cause with effect. Yet this political prestidigitation proved a brilliant coup. It diverted attention from the failure of the free-market finance they believed in to the cost of welfare states they disliked.” In short, austerity was an opportunistic attack on the ideal of a society in which we mitigate the cruel lottery of life by sharing risks.

Just before the Covid-19 outbreak, debate on the damage to the health and welfare of the most vulnerable citizens in the UK was drowned out by Brexit – itself an act of mean-spirited, Little Englander self-harm, made possible by the degradation of the national conversation and political discourse. The success of the Brexit campaign represented a triumph of simple lies – such as that Britons are dictated to by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels, so ‘we need to take back control’ – over the complex truths of the national and international, economic, political, and cultural benefits of membership of the European Union.

The most striking symptom of the sickness in the body politic of the UK, has been the ascent of the most prominent champion of Brexit to the highest office in the land. Boris Johnson, Britain’s own little Trumpette, has proved to be a catastrophically incompetent leader. As Max Hastings, his old boss at the Daily Telegraph warned, Johnson’s “elevation will signal Britain’s abandonment of any claim to be a serious country… [he is] an experiment in celebrity government.”

The pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities and iniquities. Now, if ever, is the time for radical reflection on how we got to the terrible state we’re in; and, indeed, to look beyond our parish boundaries to a global world order that at present seems to be designed to further enrich the rich and impoverish the poor, and think of post-pandemic reconstruction. As Benjamin Tallis and Neil Renic argue in ‘Building a Post-Coronial World: Lessons from Germany’ (Open Democracy, April 22nd 2020), we should not aim for a return to ‘business as usual’, “instead we should learn from social transformations ushered in by past pandemics and man-made disasters. The provision of public health, socialized medicine, the New Deal, the welfare state, and the Marshall Plan, were all radical responses to radically changing circumstances. Today, the unprecedented challenge of Covid-19 offers a similar opportunity to remake our world for the better.”

A Covid Look at Planet Earth
A Covid Look at Planet Earth Farshaad Razmjouie, 2020

What changes are needed? An obvious target is what Sheila Smith has called ‘termite capitalism’. The ‘termites’ are a sub-group of the wealth extractors, posing as wealth creators, who make money out of moving money around. Their activities have resulted in the global phenomenon of private equity destroying businesses that once provided real services and manufactured real goods. There are also the modern slave-owners who build nine figure fortunes while exploiting their employees. Hiding their ill-gotten gains from the taxman, they’re free riders on the civilization built and maintained by others. And in a globalised economy, the inequity within nations is replicated in the inequity between nations.

It is clear that fundamental change is needed. Such change, secured through radical fiscal policies – such as a commitment to a Universal Basic Income, or a Green New Deal that addresses not only economic inequality but also climate change – will require a different kind of politician from the shallow (Johnson), imbecilic and corrupt (Trump), or blood-boltered (Putin, Xi Jinping) leaders we have at present. For politicians who have a moral compass, vision, and competence to ascend to power, requires a transformation of the conversation citizens have with each other. This must mean something profoundly different from the disconnected, reactive, narrow-minded, mean-spirited, ill-informed and lie-strewn discourse orchestrated by media and platforms owned by and shaped according to the interests of billionaires. And so (not before time you might think) I come to philosophy. What could philosophy bring to the conversation we must have if our post-pandemic world is to be better than the world that was ambushed by Covid-19?

Some branches of philosophy would seem to have little to offer. Ontology, metaphysics, and epistemology are unlikely to bring much to the table – apart from (alas, well-hidden) examples of rigour and transparency in argument. These jewels in philosophy’s crown have to be content with their status as ends in themselves, bringing pleasure and illumination to those who are lucky enough to have the time and freedom from want, and the inclination, to engage in philosophical reflection.

Things have not always been thus. The role of philosophy in shaping the course of history is undeniable. The empiricism and political theory of John Locke; the encyclopaedic writings of the French philosophes whom he influenced; the English Utilitarians Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill had a huge influence on the birth of secular, liberal democracy in Europe and the USA. Marx’s famous ‘turning Hegel on his head’ – replacing mind with matter as the substrate of the process that is the putative unfolding of history – has had global consequences that are (alas) still unfolding.

Unfortunately, it looks as though the leaders of the collective conversation have now moved elsewhere. In the twentieth century, progressive social changes were not significantly advanced nor catastrophic blood baths retarded by philosophers. Neither analytic philosophy in the Anglophone world, nor Continental philosophy in mainland Europe, had a significant role in shaping the course of events. (An important exception is Simone de Beauvoir, whose 1949 book The Second Sex, became an inspiration for embattled feminism.) The tenuous connection between philosophy and political thought in the twentieth century is dramatically illustrated by the two leading exponents of existential phenomenology: Martin Heidegger was a Nazi; and Jean-Paul Sartre was first a Marxist and then a Maoist.

The most obvious philosophical source of contributions to the much-needed conversation is political philosophy, but the recent story is not encouraging. John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (1971) – an impassioned, intellectually rigorous call for a more equitable world – was at the height of its academic fame in the decades when neoliberalism, its ideological polar opposite, was shaping the politics that have since been destroying the life chances of billions and threatening the very future of the ecosphere.

How, then, shall we respond to the quote inscribed on Marx’s grave: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it” – given that philosophy no longer looks like an agent of change? Your columnist deals with his unease at writing about free will (see next column) while his fellow citizens are dying on ventilators, or queueing in food banks, and politicians are getting away with murder, by reluctantly accepting the division between activity in the kingdom of means (as in politics) and the pursuit of ultimate ends (as in philosophy).

Today, self-isolation in the study; tomorrow, back to the streets shouting slogans? Though each seems to question the other, there is serious work to be done in both places.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2020

Raymond Tallis’s latest book, Seeing Ourselves: Reclaiming Humanity from God & Science is out now.

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