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Wed 27 May 2020
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Jon Bailes explores why the Government may have changed its Coronavirus messaging to ‘Stay Alert’ and how this represents the tenets of a culture in which social problems are blamed on perceived individual failings.

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It is no surprise that Boris Johnson’s Government is trying to deflect responsibility for its Coronavirus response onto the public.

Dodging accountability is a major feature of right-wing populism today – clarified succinctly by US President Donald Trump when he declared, in response to a discussion about COVID-19 testing failures: “I don’t take responsibility at all.”

But this refusal is not unique to Johnson and Trump’s brand of politics. Establishing a sense of individual responsibility for social problems has been part of the neoliberal culture for years.

The 2008 financial crisis was a prime example of high-level, systemic and technocratic failure, but even then existed some narratives reflecting blame back onto people for taking on too much debt. Such a perspective plays down how debt has become a necessity for many and how banks aggressively push loans. Instead – because we are aware of risks and obligations – we were all complicit and austerity was a kind of just punishment.

This sense of individualised responsibility runs deeply through everyday consumer experience. Food packaging displays colour-coded information about fat and sugar content. Fairtrade products sit next to regular (unfair trade) brands on shelves. But the warnings against unhealthy, unethical purchases are always offset by competing advice that encourages us to prioritise frugality, or let go and indulge our desires. It’s enough to ensure that every choice feels sub-optimal, no matter how alert we are, and that problems of all types – obesity, depression, poverty – are our fault.

Consumer choice also serves to equalise otherwise disparate considerations, as it reduces social issues to the level of the personal. Enjoyment, health, personal savings and trade terms become part of a single calculation where no element has clear priority and, because they are offered as a choice, it feels as though every option is valid in some way. A strange rationale can easily emerge: if the ‘bad’ (unhealthy, unethical) choice was really so much worse, why would it be left to individuals in the first place?


Libertarianism Finds a Voice

This culture of individual responsibility makes the Government’s recent shifting of social distancing guidelines around COVID-19 – from “Stay At Home” to “Stay Alert” – feel as familiar as they are absurd.

In place of prohibition or definite prioritisation of certain measures are warnings and advice that tell the public just enough to deflect future blame from the authorities. As with consumerism, all that’s left are individual choices and their aggregate effect.

But also as with consumerism, a lot of people can’t afford the most desirable choices. The new rules tell people to consider travelling to work if the workplace is open and they can’t work from home, but if an employer demands an individual’s presence, what is there to consider? The Government has said public transport should be avoided, but if people have to commute to work and don’t have a car, what’s the alternative? The public is told that they can call on private childcare, but doesn’t bringing child minders into close contact with kids undermine social distancing precautions?

In this situation, many people would probably rather “Stay At Home”, but financial pressures will push them out. Of course, the economy matters, and all countries are struggling to juggle public health and finances. But the UK Government wasted precious time and is now foisting no-win choices on the public. It is trying to prioritise the economy without admitting it, premised on the knowledge that many people will have no option but to work. Indeed, teachers have been immediately vilified for considering otherwise. Combining their individual wills through organisation is frowned upon because it gives them actual agency. Choices like these are only provided on the understanding that people select the correct response.

The Government is also playing to a particular libertarian sensibility, which finds its voice in the right-wing press. This is the ideology that, in reaction to the UK’s lockdown, wrapped its concerns for the economy in an alarmist rhetoric screaming of ‘house arrest’ and an ‘end of freedom’. It is also the ideology most successfully brought to bear through the Brexit campaign’s “Take Back Control” message, which gave voters disenfranchised by decades of technocratic governance an opportunity to flex their muscles before impotently handing power back to the Vote Leave tricksters.

Such libertarian ideas – exemplified in Johnson’s invocation of “good solid British common sense” – are a particularly poor fit in the face of a deadly pandemic, when it is crucial to act in concert. This notion of common sense suggests that we all have the capacity to know what to do, so if our actions have destructive outcomes, that doesn’t indicate a failure of leadership but individual deficiencies of competence (and ‘Britishness’). More than that, however, it is a call to those decrying their lost personal freedom to indulge their narrow self-interest.

Even with perfect information, people are unlikely to all act in the best interests of the community, or themselves, so nobody can seriously expect a cocktail of vague guidelines and common sense to produce an optimum outcome. There is thus something cynical – even nihilistic – about this tabloid-fuelled brand of libertarianism.

Demanding personal freedoms above lockdown regulations in the midst of a deadly pandemic gives precedence to pub visits and holidays above risk of sickness and death, and burdens the vulnerable with avoiding the fall out. By individualising responsibility and presenting social distancing as merely desirable, the Government is tacitly encouraging such thinking. Just like a consumer choice, its obfuscating and U-turning are functioning to equalise the ‘options’.

In response to all this it is easy to suggest that we should simply listen to the experts. But the culture around expertise is partly what brought us to this point. For decades we’ve been bombarded by too much expertise in everyday decisions, often coming from different perspectives and interests. We may try to locate and follow the best advice but, for the majority of us, things keep getting worse. And while we’re made to feel that our decisions are meaningful, the experts who really moderate social conditions are out of our reach – giving us responsibility without power.

The financial crisis proved that even top-level expertise can be unreliable, but that didn’t lead to greater transparency or accountability, enabling right-wing populists to take advantage of the state of affairs with a toxic blend of entitlement, nationalism and distrust. Now, with COVID-19, when there is prevailing medical expertise that should be followed, the Government’s strategy emulates the conditions of consumerist blame and guilt.

While a technocratic approach could be more effective, it would still lack a ‘common sense’ of purpose or social togetherness. This is not a question of denying freedom, but of accepting an inclusive, collective responsibility for society, which consumerist individualism and irresponsible rulers have long discouraged.


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