Will the pandemic kill the selfish I?

As we lock ourselves down to protect the NHS and save lives, there has been a huge focus on supporting the isolated and vulnerable. Across the UK, a wide range of support groups and community groups have sprung into action. Thousands have stepped forward to volunteer.

Politicians, community, business and faith based leaders remind us we are all in this together. The state has pledged to support workers and business, acknowledging that in aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis banks were saved but many workers were forgotten.

Yet it was not so very long ago that our then PM, Margaret Thatcher in an interview with a women’s magazine made it clear she believed there was no such thing as society. Along with Ronald Reagan she was greatly influenced by Milton Friedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom” and Friedrich Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom”. Roll back the state, allow people to get on with it and freedom and prosperity will bloom.

It is worth remembering that the 1970’s UK context was one of industrial strife. There was broad feeling that the “state” was not delivering, nationalised industries were not competitive or efficient and trade unions had become too powerful. Dead bodies and bin bags piling up as the result of strike action seemed to epitomise the failing UK state.

The Thatcher revolution quickly set about dismantling many parts of the state within a few years, people were buying council houses and shares in previously nationalised industries. There was a feeling that anyone could make it and as Del boy would proclaim each week on “Only fools and horses”, “we could all be millionaires”, but of course we were not. Instead shares sold to the people were quickly bought up by large institutional investors and a few people became very rich.

A growing disenchantment with the Thatcher revolution led to the election of Blair’s new labour, which promised a “third way”. You could be pro – business and let it flourish but use the increased tax revenues for social good. Many political commentators saw “Blairism” as proof of the lasting change Thatcher had introduced. Here was a labour government that big business and “press barons” could happily endorse and a leader they could go on holiday with.

Throughout the new labour years there was growing public concern about the way the economy was run. It seemed that many businesses were now bigger and stronger than the state. The rapid growth of globalisation meant nation states often had to pander to business or they would take their jobs elsewhere. Alongside this people were becoming concerned that privately run rail and utility were not delivering and put profit before people. It felt more and more like the world was being run for the benefit of a small group of very rich people. An “Inconvenient truth” put climate issues on the map and world poverty and inequality started to be raised as serious issues. The Iraq war seemed to illustrate that politicians could combine dishonesty and ineptitude with devastating consequences.

Then the 2008 crash happened, and it seemed all the naysayers were right. Economies and banks tumbled and taxpayers not the market, bailed them out. Whilst the fine detail was too bewildering for many, the simple truth was bankers had taken huge reckless risks with nonsensical loans. The pursuit of profit fuelled by greed had wrecked the world economy. Across the world hawkish right wing politicians signed up to mouth-watering fiscal stimulus packages. Within months bankers were paying themselves huge bonuses once more and multinational companies were finding ways of avoiding paying tax. Whereas the poor were told we now needed austerity measures which led to people suffering and paying for a crisis they did not cause.

At street level what this thirty year period oversaw was the growth of a very individual consumerist culture. In the upward phase of growth and prosperity, people bought houses and, travelled the world. Flash cooking and up market DIY became popular marks of identity and many people started to feel it was ok to ignore the poor. They were poor due to lack of effort and you did not owe them anything. Changes in the labour market and attitude led to huge fall in the number of union members. The downward phase saw a rise of xenophobic and racist rhetoric and a mistrust of mainstream politicians and global institutions. This led to a huge backlash against multiculturalism and the EU which in turn led to Brexit. Social media became a powerful tool for spreading messages quickly and nobody could really control what you said or know if it was true. So, people, spurred on by algorithms and “secret” political advertising increasingly just listened to what they already agreed with.

Alongside this a more progressive left wing form of individualism started to become popular. People started to talk about identity. Therapy and people centred approaches started to replace “class based struggles”. Mindfulness became a way of achieving personal acceptance and change rather than collective struggle. People spoke of “I” not “we” and post modernism seemed to lend power to the belief, that we all have our own narratives so nobody could really tell anybody what to do. There was talk of rainbow coalitions that united discriminated groups. Environmental concerns challenged traditional socialist models of economic growth as a means of alleviating poverty. Those on the right saw this as political correctness gone mad and debates raged about what constituted the “real world”, freedom of speech and a snowflake generation of entitlement.

Post 2008 crash, despite the election of Obama, it was the populist right who cleaned up and some, such as film maker Adam Curtis, would argue this was because so called progressives had become trapped in a way of thinking that meant they could not act or speak collectively, in a coherent way. They had become slaves to the “I” culture and whilst aspects of this was positive it meant they could not unite behind a leader and mobilise. Instead many looked inward for answers, debated differences with each other or even felt voting was a waste of time.

Jump forward to the 2020 pandemic and we see once again markets are nowhere to be seen as governments step in to bail out workers and business. Community groups are springing up across the world to offer their support and many of these are spontaneous and organic. This is very much a “we” moment. Yet as politicians across the globe talk of us all being in it together, we know that poorer people living in cramped and inadequate conditions in areas with poor services are more likely to become infected and die. That many of the workers we now applaud as heroes are on minimum wage, zero hour contracts. Many of the frontline NHS staff delivering vital services earn less than the level set to define a skilled worker for immigration purposes by our Home Office Minister. In short, all the shortcomings of the “selfish society” are being laid bare for all to see.

So, we now have an opportunity to create a moment like in 1945, when after World War Two, people wanted to create a country fit for heroes. This led to the creation of the NHS and a whole raft of social policies that benefitted the people who had fought and won the war. I would suggest the areas and issues we need to look at would include:

1. A proactive, efficient, enabling state that creates a partnership between the state, business and community so they work together for the good of us all. Health, education and housing should be top of the agenda.
2. Recognising that whilst it is good to have a sense of individuality, we are all social beings and we are all socially constructed. So, we need to develop a society that encourages and welcomes an inclusive “collective spirit” where we all recognise we have rights to be free but a responsibility to look after each other.
3. Promoting tax as an essential insurance, not a burden, that guarantees we have an enabling state that provides us with services and ensures we are housed, educated, kept healthy and safe and our rights are protected by rule of law.
4. We need to ensure the rich and powerful pay their tax and globally we need to seek to work to close tax loopholes and ban tax free havens.
5. We need protection for those who cannot work, living wages and decent conditions for those who can.
6. We need to get rid of “us” and “them” structures. One health system and one education system for all would be a good start. Surely all people require the same treatment. After this pandemic I am pretty sure people would put a front line nurse ahead of a merchant banker or PR guru in the queue for a hospital bed.
7. Our social, youth and community services need to reconnect with their “collective” roots. Many of the issues people face grow out of inequality and living and growing up in poverty. People need to be encouraged to explore why it is that on their estate there is lack of opportunity and develop the skills and knowledge to challenge and change that. Person centred therapeutic approaches have a place but have swamped these professions. Sometimes people need to get angry not mindful and to be shown how to harness that in a positive way to bring about change for themselves and others.
8. A “together” politics and “society” requires a “we” leadership. We need to see a diversity of people in leadership positions. Political parties need to stop parachuting apparatchiks into safe seats. We need local politicians who have lived in the area, had “real life” experience beyond think tanks, media and degrees in Politics, Philosophy and Economics.
9. Business needs to step up the move to have diverse boardrooms, their vison and missions must deliver social value and this should be an accountable area of operation that is audited.
10. Community groups need to engage in three – way discussions with government and business and must be prepared to learn from them as well as share their opinions. They also need to look at their own operations and ask how accountable they are to the people they claim to represent They need to question their own operations, have they become self-perpetuating oligarchies that stifle new voices and innovation?
11. Equality and environment must be at the centre of any plans we come up with.

We need to accept a lot of good has come out of the last forty years, but we now need change and it will not come from going backwards. We need a dynamic, green and inclusive politics that captures the spirt of the moment and is prepared to think outside ideological boxes and puts unity and cohesion beyond sectarian interest.

Our pubs, restaurants and town centres are closed. The shelves in our supermarket our empty, our NHS is at breaking point and our PM tells us bluntly thousands are going to die. Yet people are not rolling over in despair and giving up. The huge outpouring of collective action has shown we never really stopped being a “together” society, we just forgot we had it in us to collectively share and tackle problems. So now that powerful genie is out of the bottle, we must work with it to create a better Britain and world for all.


Kieran Breen

Kieran is the CEO of Leicestershire Cares and lectures on globalisation and young people at De Montfort University but is writing here in a personal capacity