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 appeasement.org 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.