Are we really all in this together?
Wednesday, 29 November 2023 05:46

Are we really all in this together?

Esther Leslie questions the media messages and slogans around the Covid-19 pandemic, as part of the joint Morning Star and Culture Matters series on Covid-19 and culture

 A picture flashed through social media channels. A woman, in a Stars and Stripes dress, protesting at Huntington Beach, California, holds up a banner: Social Distancing = Communism. State-enforced regulations, the result of the Covid-19 pandemic, insist on keeping a perimeter of 6 feet around each person to prevent the spread of a virus. These rules were interpreted by her, and many others, as the unwarranted intervention of authority into the sovereign life of the individual.

Is not the opposite more true: that social distancing suggests neo-liberalism in spatial form? You should remain alienated from the social whole, from others, because to band together is to develop class consciousness and reasoning. ‘There is no such thing as society’, said Thatcher, and hoped we would retreat, at least ideologically, to our strong individual selves, bolstered by our families and the compulsion of tradition, cossetted in our homes, that we have bought, preferably off Labour councils, turning ourselves into property owners.

In contrast to Thatcherite and Trump-ish definitions of the social, its defence as a realm of collectivity led to this banner on some people’s social media profiles: Physical Distancing and Social Solidarity. Physical distance to protect bodies but social solidarity as an expression of support for NHS workers and the commitment to volunteer to aid the vulnerable. It affirmed the desire to support each other through our loneliness, at the start, when there was still some hope and a spirit of experimentation abroad.

We could still experience things communally, in Zoom pub quizzes and free theatre online. But the name of the social was held onto resolutely by those with the power to decree what should take place in it – and their ears were apparently deaf enough to historical and political resonance to make a public information message for radio that made me wince each time I heard it: ‘Observe national social distancing guidelines with each other, currently set at 2 metres.’

‘We are all in it together’, they say, in order to produce a sense of unity. We are all in it together and to say otherwise is to unjustly politicise the situation, because politics are divisive and division should work only for the purposes of rule, not for the purposes of critique.

We are all in this together – and we applaud those on the frontline. The frontline, that metaphor from war, referring to a space most proximate to active combat, the killing zone. And all this is war because our Prime Minister would like to be seen as Winston Churchill, although in any case the Second World War is the off-the-peg reference point for every event that slashes through the nation and rattles stability. Even the opposition cannot leave war references behind, when pay to plaster a billboard in Kentish Town with the accusation that the Prime Minister is less like Churchill and more like Chamberlain.

Because to fight a virus we need a war – but not the class war, anything but that. We are all in this together, but not socially proximate, not conceived of social beings. Indeed a phoney, unused, NHS army of volunteers has to be mobilised to counteract the Kropotkin-inflected principles of the mutual aid groups that sprung up uncontrolled and just got down to helping.

But who hasn’t used the phrase in recent politics? ‘We are all in this together’, said David Cameron and George Osborne, when they used it to justify austerity measures, and Ed Miliband tussled over how to fill it with something approaching meaning. We are all in this together. But we are not so much in it together as outside it together, all of us looking in on a spectacle of government, a circus of staged briefings, in which nudges and deliberate miscommunications are meant to spread fluidly across the social media that slides under our fingers, more viral than the virus.

Silly fonts, illogically photoshopped adverts, inept slogans – all appearing as failures of communication, fudges of policy by the indecisive, but actually modes of management through confusion and pranking. Nothing will stick and we can get no handle on what is meant and what is not meant. We are all in it together, as we stand side by side clapping health workers next to those who will turn on them in a breath, if they point out the inequities of the situation, or worse, do something about it, by withdrawing labour. We are all outside this together, socially distanced, clapping our hands before wringing them, when we see the assaults to come on those who make up or exist within the welfare state – which is most of us indeed.

Our media claim for themselves the name of the social now and the trinity of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook bridge distance virtually. Social media are one of Platform Capitalism’s greatest hopes for profits. Across social media, the slogans proliferate, doctored, adjusted, in a war of words that are composed to nudge or to nudge nudge wink wink or to cock a snook or make a cheap joke.

In response to the corruptions of government, the debacle of a senior government advisor providing a test case of ‘one law for them, another for the rest of us’, a phrase replicated itself on social media, in more or less this form: ‘Now the English know what it's like to be ruled by the English.’ And, with this, the contradictions within the social whole that is the United Kingdom are prised open as a joke-not-joke.

Plague Songs - It Cures What Ails Ya!
Wednesday, 29 November 2023 05:46

Plague Songs - It Cures What Ails Ya!

Published in Poetry

Plague Songs - It Cures What Ails Ya!

by Martin Rowson

One should not mock the chronic sick,
And nor should we mock Dominic
Whose road-based therapies recall,
Damascus-bound, those of St Paul
Who was, you lot should be reminded,
On a road trip when unblinded.
Dom need make no apology!
It’s not just opthalmology
That sees Road Treatment’s benefits!
It’s a cure-all for the many! It’s
A tested and well tried procedure
From whooping cough to paraplegia!
For instance, the old dean of Keble’s
Gout’s returned: drive him to Peebles!
Abjure the lure of penicillin!
Simply drive to Enniskillin!
Infantile paralysis?
Why not try a drive to Diss?
Your child it born with a cleft palate;
Drive the brat to Shepton Mallet!
A cerebral catastrophe?
Fixed by a drive to Leigh-on-Sea.
You find your mum’s airways restricted?
Motor her to the Peak District;
A femur pops out of its socket?
Drive all the way to Drumnadrochit.
Obviously if you have a stroke,
It’s in the car to Basingstoke;
And likewise cardiac arrest
Demands a drive to Bristol West!
So if your stomach ulcer bleeds
Jump in the car and drive to Leeds;
Caries rot your yellow teeth,
They gleam before you’ve got to Neath;
Struck down with Huntington’s Chorea?
Simply drive to Hazelmere.
A touch of cancer? With a whoosh
Drive off to Ashby-de-la-Zouch!
And when they say you’ve caught malaria -
Hull Regeneration Area!
Just even feeling sort of sick
You’ll cure on drives to Walberswick
And when they say you’ve got Corona
A nice long drive to Barcelona
Should see you right! Whate’er you have
Just punch a route in your sat nav
And soon, on the A23,
You’ll find the perfect remedy!
All you have to do is DRIVE! It
Cures what ails ya! Or go private.

 The PM's Chief Adviser Addresses His Critics
Wednesday, 29 November 2023 05:46

 The PM's Chief Adviser Addresses His Critics

Published in Poetry

The PM's Chief Adviser Addresses His Critics

by David Betteridge, with image by Martin Gollan

My eyes are dim, I cannot see.
Come wife, come child,
and drive with me!

To drive at speed on public roads
may remedy my sight.
If not, and we get mangled in a crash,
it proves my first assessment right.

I cannot see how anyone can think my judgement or my actions wrong;
but if you do, heigh ho! I do not care.
I carry on, and on, for you are weak,
and I - prepared to boldly, blindly drive,
unstoppably - am strong.

Classroom culture and the coronavirus crisis
Wednesday, 29 November 2023 05:46

Classroom culture and the coronavirus crisis

Published in Education

Sean Ledwith explains how classrooms are now the front line of the coronavirus class war

It is difficult to imagine what Downing Street thought would be achieved by sending out Michael Gove recently to assure teachers that schools will be safe environments by June 1st. No person is more guaranteed to have thousands of teachers across the land shouting at their television sets and filling the air with expletives than the former Education Secretary. Gove is without question the most hated politician to have taken that role in modern times and even now, the mere mention of his name is sufficient to make most teachers roll their eyes in exasperation.

During his tenure at the Education Department, Gove – along with his insidious minion Dominic Cummings – presided over a regime that increased the bureaucratic burden on staff and introduced new forms of stress-inducing tests on primary children. Numbers of teachers actively considering leaving the profession rose to record levels, inversely related to the dearth of graduates thinking of going into it. Gove has been a key figure in the last ten years of Tory control of the English education system that has seen the closure of Sure Start centres, abolition of the Education Maintenance Grant, cuts to free school meals and the rise of divisive academies and free schools. The notion that such a figure could provide any level of reassurance to teachers in the midst of a national emergency is beyond a joke.

The Johnson government has clearly decided that breaking the morale and resistance of teachers is a key component of its agenda to restore the profitability of UK capitalism, regardless of the cost in terms of lives. The state education sector is potentially facing the levels of devastation that has already been visited this year on hospitals and care homes. In the face of contradictory evidence from the British Medical Association and against the advice of the devolved administrations of the other UK nations, the government is intending to reopen primary schools on the first day of next month to pupils in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6. Secondary pupils scheduled for public exams in 2021 are also expected to return at some point before the end of the summer term. Laughably, Gove and his cabinet colleagues have justified this on the grounds of growing concern about pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds falling behind due to lockdown. Although this is a genuine problem, no one should be fooled by the hypocrisy of Tory politicians whose neoliberal agenda in education is premised entirely on accelerating class divisions.

The National Education Union, the UK’s largest teachers’ union, has played an exemplary role in spearheading the resistance to this reckless plan. None of its eminently sensible five criteria are currently in place for a return that would actually satisfy the concerns of many teachers: a significant downward trend in the number of corona cases; a coherent plan of social distancing in schools; readily accessible testing in schools for staff and pupils; strategies for responding to outbreaks in schools and plans for the protection of staff whose caring responsibilities make working from home the only realistic option. Legitimate concerns from teachers about the lack of available Personal Protective Equipment and the inherent difficult of persuading very young children to practise social distancing have been brushed aside with characteristic hubris by Gove and Gavin Williamson, the equally unconvincing current holder of the education portfolio.

Instead of coercing teachers to return to return unwillingly against their better judgement, a more progressive government would be considering how this breakdown of norms actually provides an opportunity to completely reorientate the direction of educational policy. The scrapping of all GCSEs and A Levels has forced the exam boards to turn to the judgement of teachers to produce appropriate grades for all students. This is a reminder that, in the minds of many educators, formative assessments by teachers produced throughout the year actually provide a more accurate indicator of progress than a terminal exam in the summer. The corona crisis could be utilised to shift the focus of formal assessment back towards a more collaborative approach in many subjects, based on students working both with each other and the teacher on coursework modules.

 The case for the downplaying of formal assessment is even more compelling in the primary sector. Thanks to Gove’s top-down regime of high-stakes testing at Key Stages 1 and 2, the qualitative experiences of thousands of children in their first years of formal education have been damaged by a narrowing of the curriculum and an intrusive  focus on targets and tracking. The weeks of lockdown have been a sobering reminder that nothing is more important than the physical and psychological wellbeing of children. Whenever classrooms reopen properly again, the prioritising of play and socialising for young children must outweigh the Gradgrind-mentality that the Tories have fostered.