It’s become a commonplace that Covid has amplified features and fissures in society that we always knew existed but never quite acknowledged.
For instance there’s the importance of people who keep things going without us realising: shop workers, parcel deliverers, lorry drivers. If reward is a function of indispensability, we now know that these people are poorly rewarded. (Though the UK government’s 1% pay rise for nurses shows that recognition by no means leads directly to justice).
Then there’s the dispute over the role of experts, and attempts by populist leaders like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro to sideline them in favour of quack remedies or downright Covid denialism.
We always knew that wages are awarded in inverse proportion to a person’s usefulness to society and that populism is dangerous, but it took the glare of Covid to make these things unavoidably obvious.
But there’s another fissure that was barely visible pre-Covid yet which has come to define much of the reaction to the pandemic: the gulf between libertarians and authoritarians. Unfortunately, and with potentially disastrous post-Covid consequences, the libertarian position has been entirely dominated by the right, leaving the left defenceless as the capitalist state arrogates more and more power to itself under cover of Covid darkness.
Over the past twelve months it’s been something of a surprise to see how readily people on the political left have lined up behind disciplinary policies and practices that in normal times they’d have fought tooth and nail. Whether it’s increased police powers, enhanced surveillance, Covid passports or the criminalising of information, leftists have either waved through repressive measures or raised the stakes by suggesting how helpful even more repression would be. Voices on the left calling out these measures have been few and far between.
Most disturbing of all is the shock horror these same people display when a bill comes before parliament increasing police powers and curbing the right to protest. What, one wonders, did they expect? Politically literate leftists shouldn’t have to read Carl Schmitt or Giorgio Agamben on states of exception to know that regimes will always take advantage of emergency to intensify their authority.
It’s taken Covid to bring both the outright and the naive disciplinarian left out of the woodwork, and as the Covid crisis draws to a close it may be too late to put the authoritarian genie back in the bottle. It wouldn't be too bad if ceding a libertarian approach to Covid to the right had just left it in the hands of crazed denialists prepared to go to the wall for the right not to wear a mask. But actually it's made possible the government's truly scary Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021, waved through in the wake of the softening up offered by Covid 'necessities'.
In sum there is huge gap where the left should have been designing, advocating and enacting a progressive libertarian approach to Covid, and the authoritarian capitalist state is gleefully sailing straight into it.