James Crossley reflects on the dangers and possibilities of the Covid-19 crisis. Image: Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Albrecht Durer, 1497-8
Towards the end of March, it was reported that an English hiker returned from a five-day trek in the New Zealand wilds and was surprised to see “three hooded figures, wearing masks and hi-vis jackets.”
His journey coincided with the coronavirus lockdown and his response was that the three figures were like a “post-apocalyptic survivor squad.” Despite his atypical situation, he was not alone in framing these unusual times in such language.
With the rapid public awareness of coronavirus came the ubiquitous language of apocalypticism and End Times, even in an increasingly irreligious Britain. Such language is used ironically, as few really believe that the End Times are upon us or that an era of Walking Dead survivalism is at hand—this is not the US, after all. But hopes of a transformation in the way we live after the crisis are taken more seriously. It seems people overwhelmingly do not want to go back to the way things were before the lockdown. It seems they do prefer cleaner air, a feeling of community and keeping in touch with family members.
There is good reason why people have framed the pandemic in terms of apocalypticism because such language and concepts run deep in our culture. In the US, such ideas are associated with the Christian right. In this country, however, they are much more closely aligned with the left and have a long history. John Ball, the great priest of the 1381 English uprising, employed end-times language from the Bible to understand the predicament of peasants in particular and how a dramatic, violent transformation would be needed before all things would be held in common.
Apocalypticism was an important way for people like Ball to express their discontents in a pre-capitalist society. Socialist and communist movements later provided a different type of opposition to capitalism and absorbed and transformed such language and ideas.
Like other socialists of his time, William Morris worked with the idea of a “religion of socialism.” God may be out of the equation but socialism needed to retain what was important in religion and this included ideas about changing the current social order while being prepared to face defeats and sacrifices. Morris’s reading of Marx also meant he could take seriously the idea that John Ball was a prophet before his time. In A Dream of John Ball, Morris showed that there will always be failures but the message of past struggles must not be lost in new situations. Ball’s vision of a transformed world, Morris argued, was more likely with the rise of socialism but it now needed the example of determined people like Ball to help bring it about.
The darker side of apocalypticism became prominent in the 20th century, with two world wars and the threat of nuclear and then environmental annihilation. But the left did not lose sight of the possibilities for a better world. After VE Day and the rubble of World War II, socialists looked to build a New Jerusalem as the Labour Party created the NHS and developed a welfare state as part of their “new war on hunger, ignorance and want,” as the 1945 manifesto put it.
These ideas have persisted. After decades of leftist defeatism, Rojava showed the possibilities for transformation again. Volunteers could talk about inheriting the earth and bringing about a new world after the ruins. From socialists and communists in the region, as well as the brutal realities of war, volunteers knew the cost of fighting for revolutionary change and the importance of memorialising martyrs. The death of volunteers like Anna Campbell brought this home to a country not used to thinking much beyond the romance of revolution.
It is for good reason that liberals get queasy about the language of dramatic change. Maintaining, or gently tweaking, the status quo is in their interests. But their interests are not workers’ interests. The Financial Times last month gave the game away with an analogy from the 14th century. Its editorial noted that the Black Death has been credited with “transforming labour relations in Europe” as peasants “could bargain for better terms and conditions.” However, it added, “a thankfully much lower mortality rate means such a transformation is unlikely to follow coronavirus.”
Unfortunate wording? Perhaps. The main concern in the FT editorial may have been about high unemployment but clearly the transformation of labour relations after the lockdown is not what the bosses want. Our interests are the opposite and popular. Workers once taken for granted are now widely appreciated during this pandemic, as they clear away our rubbish, make sure we have food and treat patients in testing circumstances—even to the point of putting their lives on the line.
Their importance and the contrasting uselessness of the likes of Richard Branson have been exposed for us all to see. To paraphrase the popular piece of graffiti, the next battleground will involve making the rich pay for Covid-19. If the aftermath of 2008 and the Corbyn project taught us anything, this is not going to be easy. The government has made noises about paying back what’s owed and we know who will and who won’t bear the brunt of this and who will and won’t be made redundant.
The odds aren’t favourable, with a long-weakened union movement and a Starmer-led Labour Party. But this is not the time for technocratic politics or a gentle tweaking of the system which will only further line the pockets of corporations at the expense of workers. The demands for a new world are getting ever more urgent in the face of climate change. Serious, sustained change will only come through the power of mass collective action with workers’ interests at heart and a vision of what kind of world we want.
Are we up for it? Bob Crow famously said: “If you fight you won't always win. But if you don't fight you will always lose.” That saying turned up in Rojava and it is just as relevant in northern Syria as it will be once this so-called apocalypse ends and the next one hits us hard.