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Covid 19

Portal to something new? Forget it.

As life returns to normal, it’s necessary to wonder about lost opportunity. The gist of the recovery is to recover a temporarily-halted consumerism. The government has been generous in terms of subsidising workers and companies, keeping an eye on rents and mortgages, giving money to artists, rugby, racing and beer. Millions here, millions there and doubling the government debt in doing so. But money is not an issue. The world is generally awash with capital, with debt tolerated except for the severely irresponsible (like the Greeks). All that fiscal responsibility the coalition signed up to was a fig leaf to confuse the recalcitrant business sector. The irony is that there wasn’t anything to hide. Obviously the tourist industry is in dire straits, as is Air NZ, with a very slow recovery in the offing, for closed borders will continue for some time. Environmental concerns have taken a back seat, farmers are triumphant and extractivists are saying, I told you so. There’s a sort of return to the fifties. In terms of foreign policy we’re minding our own business and turning a blind eye to the malevolent treatment of Cuba by the US and its encouraging of Israel to continue colonising the West Bank. And the China problem? Let’s keep quietly quiet. After all we’ve defeated the virus which everyone is tired of hearing about so it will somehow disappear into being a third world problem.

If ever there was a time when a Universal Basic Income could have been introduced it was the last month or so, for many were on an unofficial UBI. It would still have been a difficult process for it would have meant a gentle restructuring of the economy. With the UBI, livelihood is separated from the capitalist merry go round of futures, derivatives, global milk prices and so on. There is, as well as the merry go round, a coherent community and government economy which generates livelihood rights as had to happen with the lockdown. There remains a dialectical relationship but one can learn to move between cultures. The market will continue to stumble, rise, swear and sweat, endlessly change, produce its millionaires and billionaires, its celebrities and scandals and like peasants, we will watch with screwed up eyes. People will participate as they can and as they want, but some choice exists, for the basic platform of life, which we all need and struggle for, would be a little more secure. In countries without national super, the sight of old people begging is dreadful, but surely children and parents begging is equally dreadful, yet begging and the accompanying charity, is taking place on an industrial scale and no one really protests.

In a time of increasing turmoil, to have introduced the UBI would have been a kind thing to do. So why not seize the opportunity? Why not, like the capitalists, use the crisis? Was it a failure of nerve, a lack of belief, a cultural problem of ministers being of an urban, petit bourgeois, liberal persuasion? Was it simply a betting on winning the next election with crisis-earned capital? Hard to know, but as a result, there is a feeling of ennui, a lack of motivation, a lack of courage. It seems some people are having anxiety attacks at having to return to the bustle of the stranger, suffering from a sort of agoraphobia of the soul, something my adopted mother suffered from. Some then will stay in the shadows, others will party up with the intensity of the six o’clock swill, we’ll watch Dan Carter play for the Blues and the America Cup will go ahead. Corona will disappear because people are literally, sick of it. The establishment wants rid of Trump and the crazies won’t be able to save him, nor will the military bosses roll in the tanks – he’s not their sort of guy and he’d had more than his ten minutes of fame. Uncle Joe Biden will stumble through and there’ll be enough media space for the climate events as the planet continues to rid itself of this problem species, helped of course, by the problem species.

Cultures and Viruses

Having had a Mayday celebration in Blackball continuously for the last 23 years and with locked-out Milton worker, Colin Weatherall travelling here to attend all of them, it felt wrong not to mark the occasion in some way, so I sent out a notice inviting locals to assemble briefly for the singing of Solidarity for Ever, with Colin on the end of his phone in Milton.

wobblies

Solidarity for Ever was written by Ralph Chaplin during a major strike in the US in 1915. Chaplin was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) and the song has become the union anthem. The message is simple: We the workers are pitted against the bosses and if we band together we can remove them from their position of ‘haughty power’ and take control of economic production. The state doesn’t get a mention as an agent of change and the IWW was an anarcho-syndicalist organisation, liking neither the capitalist ‘democratic’ state nor state socialism.

As the ten people assembled for our little ceremony I waved them closer for the singing and the greeting of Colin, but there was a shaking of heads and muttering of ‘social distancing’. We’ve been locked down in Blackball for five weeks, there have been no cases here, no active cases on the Coast for three weeks, the likelihood of us giving one another Covid 19 as we sang Solidarity for Ever was as likely as a virgin birth.

IMG-2235

I felt once again, the barriers, both internal and external that have been set up and the tensions. When will it be possible to throw a ball for another person to catch? We wait for the state to say to kids, Now you can hug your grandma. It’s looking like the bargain will be, When everyone downloads the tracking app. Then the state will know where you’ve been and who you’ve been in contact with. That’s the price of intimacy.

I have felt recalcitrant during the lockdown. For a start it has been authoritarian with one size fits all regulations which always create absurdities: what’s the difference between a 69 year old and a 70 year old? If the fish shop can stay open, why not the salami shop or the bottle store? Was there any reason for the blokes to stop working on the Croesus Road, six of them in their machines – sort out something for the tea breaks, perfect opportunity, no traffic? How come there was no money for teachers, then there was and now there’s money to throw around? Except the community-based midwives continue to be left out. Act as if you have the virus and as if everyone else has the virus – but I know I don’t and I know that no one else here has it. And don’t be sceptical, that’s selfish. In the old Eastern Europe, people were bedevilled by regulations yet were openly cynical, while keeping an eye out for informers. We had an informer in Blackball – took to it like a bee to a jam making session. Paranoia, distancing, no touching, be obedient and the rules are for your own good and think of the poor vulnerable people. We were suddenly in the new entrants class with Jacinda the favourite teacher with the kind heart, big smile and great classroom management, backed up by Ashleigh the principal.  Opposition was traitorous. Kneel down and pray to God for Mummy and Daddy and for those in need and forgive us our trespasses. Old themes of sacrifice and obedience, pollution and untouchability were present.

marching girls

I was thrown back to Palmerston North in the 1950s where most lived in their nuclear family ‘bubble’, fences were sacred and don’t have too much to do with the neighbours. There was the same self righteous and sentimental nationalism – New Zealand was God’s own country and on Anzac Day we remembered those who had died for our freedom (of course freedom was a more problematic concept if you were Gay or Maori or had read about the absurd slaughter of the working class in WW1). There was the beginning of the anal obsession with cleanliness, daily showers(showers just coming into being) and deodorant rather than a weekly bath and BO. Long drops were a thing of the past as well as cutting up squares of newspaper for the dunny. Shampoo was invented. Maoris were communal and dirty and Pakeha were individual and clean. Marching girls did their thing, we joined the cubs or the brownies, had military training at high school and we all listened to the rugby and went to church. On the plus side there was full employment, across the board union membership (compulsory) we all had a garden and we manufactured our own clothes, shoes etc.

hippies

The sixties counter cultural movement rebelled against this: communal was good, let your hair grow, don’t wash too much, take off the mask (and the bra), smoke dope and expand your mind, get the hell out of the nuclear family psycho drama, pull down the fences, have a community garden, touching is good, make love not war, the military culture is absurd,  suspect authority and the state, come together in collective rituals where communitas exists – that relationship of mutuality between individuals, respect the wisdom of the indigenous peoples, listen to Gaia. We found a potent symbol in the guerrilla strategy of Ho Chi Minh and Che and the  wildcat Wobblies. There were contradictions of course, a certain narcissism, the movement eventually got colonised by the consumer culture, ‘free’ relationships could become painful and abusive, drugs addled the brain and when the system got stroppy it all faded away under neo-liberalism, except it left lasting cultural antibodies in the bloodstream of those who had experienced it in their formative years.

So, an explanation of the reaction of an old white man who is irrelevant. But nevertheless I ask the question, What comes out the other side? Is this a portal which will see UBI, for instance, permaculture, a new green deal… We have the opportunity but don’t bet on it. It looks like they’ll give the corporates some big bucks to kick start the economy and we’ll race off for a takeaway fix and some consumerism. Already we’re seeing the ‘postponement’ of fair pay agreements, university staff under increasing threat of casualisation… I suspect the list will grow.

The most worrying thing is that people have absorbed the lockdown culture and kids will be taught it with great thoroughness. No touching, keep your distance, watch the screen/ Google docs will reign supreme.

Was there an alternative or was this the real TINA moment? Could they have chosen recommendation rather than regulation, given out the information and said to people: you choose how to deal with this, but this is what we advise. First of all we need to sort out the borders and that will require some assumption of authority as people transition. If you’re vulnerable you should stay at home and we’ll support you. Service providers need to work things out to keep their staff and customers safe. If you get the virus you should tell us, self isolate and we’ll need to trace and test your contacts. Rest homes need to be ultra careful and need to work things out with the residents, their families and staff. Ditto prisons. It’s silly to gather in large close numbers, so please don’t. It’s wise to keep your distance and it’s wise to wash your hands regularly. If you can work from home please do so. Don’t get in a situation where you need help from the emergency services.  I’m sure you can work out how to do public transport. Schools need to figure things out with their parents and students. Some people are going to die, we know that. Most of them will be old and compromised. That’s how it is. If you go into a war zone you might get shot. If you drive a car you might get killed. If you live in an age of globalisation things spread. Let’s be adult and sensible and support one another through this. It’s going to last a while. We’ll update the information as it comes to hand.

Finally, and most importantly, there’s going to be an economic hit but this is actually an opportunity to revamp the economy and make it sustainable. Let’s begin the discussion.

sweden

That’s been the Swedish solution. Commentators are now saying that New Zealand and Sweden are the two top contenders in the contest of dealing best with the virus and only time will tell who the winner is.

 

Kindness

In the 1990s, as part of a poverty action group, I happened to attend a Grey Power meeting in the Hutt. It was run by a couple of old communists and did they tear into each other when it came to discussing which line to take. But then communism has never been kind; if you want to take over the means of production and then, if successful, defend the new state of affairs from the capitalists who will be attacking you with every weapon in their arsenal, kindness is not on the agenda. Ask the Cubans. Various hui I have attended have also often been volatile as issues were debated, with often a surprising level of vitriol. Except, after the debate, in both cases, camaraderie existed once more.

I suppose I prefer this state of affairs, when issues and ideas rouse strong emotions, to the culture of kindness, which comes from a middle class charity. It was the duty of Victorian ladies to visit the poor and sick in their vicinity and dispense kind words and some physical sustenance. It gave a greater purpose than the round of visits and chat and gossip that characterised the rest of their life – unless they happened to be secret novelists.

In Civilisation and its Discontents  Freud argued that culture is the balancing act between instinctual, pleasure-seeking impulses (eros) and the feeling of shame and remorse for hurting others when following these impulses. And then, when that shame and remorse is anticipated, the internalised super ego has formed, known more generally as conscience, that then guides our actions. The judicial system follows this paradigm:  the court process is geared to promoting shame and remorse and then, in the penitentiary (the place of the penitent), a superego is supposedly acquired, and once that is measurable, the wrongdoer can be released back into society.

Accordingly, with the lockdown (in response to a rampant death threat), we deny our pleasure seeking instincts and follow the strictures of a superego as dictated by the state mother or father figure. And the disobedient, the hunters and gatherers, the surfers, the hikers and bike riders, the pleasure seekers, are shamed into remorse. For the first time in history, a cabinet minister’s career is in tatters because he went a walk with his family on an isolate beach.

Such a situation produces neurotic tensions in instinctual life: the bad boy spitting on others, the cursing of supermarket workers, domestic violence, racism toward Chinese people…but also eruptions in the dominating super ego: spying and dobbing in, a schizoid search for safety behind masks, a paranoia toward the other as threat, the over compliance of the schiz child (judging himself as guilty), an undercurrent of sadism and cynicism not read by the media or the politicians.

Here’s an example. Below our cottage is a track that leads to a field that is a sort of commons. For years it had an absentee owner, allowing for the commons to develop,  but was then bought by the local dairy farmer. Being on the other side of the road, he uses it mainly to grow silage, with once a year, grazing his heifers on it. Our whanau and some others, walk our dogs there. The farmer is happy about that, except he requests that we don’t do so when the heifers are there – and we are happy to comply. Recently the silage has been cut and baled and yesterday the picking up of the last of the bales coincided with my afternoon walk. As I wandered back home a tractor came dashing across the field and a rabid farm worker started shouting at me. ‘This is private property, we are in lockdown, the dog’s not on a lead, if they saw you here they’d shut us down.’ He had the same twisted face that once ordered people to scrub the footpath. I started to explain the customary relationship, that the social distancing was about one kilometre, that this is part of my local, but he would have none of it. ‘If I see you here again I’ll call the police. I’ve spoken to the boss and he agrees.’

Not in the wildest dream did this have anything to do with possible transmission of the virus, but the lockdown had created this unreason. I suspect that this is the end of the customary use of the field. Who knows. Maybe I will need to be secretive and check that he is not present before venturing. But it will no  longer be a free act.

To what extent this is universalised is a matter of interest. The fear of a gathering of people may well linger. What this will mean for marae and tangihanga is anyone’s guess.  We may all start to wear a mask as a matter of habit, the over compliance may continue, as may the violent undercurrent of the thwarted impulse. Meanwhile the data collection will proceed apace, we may compliantly download the app that traces our contacts and our movements. The Universal Basic Income is approaching with strings attached, as is the technological revolution and ArtificiaI Intelligence. Blake’s poems resonate; the kindness of ‘Little lamb who made thee’ balanced by ‘Tyger tiger burning bright…’ and the dread contained in the prophetic works.

Maybe this is paranoia and kindness will solve these issues. It would be nice if this were so but I am sceptical.  At least we need to be discussing these paradigms openly and honestly.

charity1

Further reflections

The science: viruses require a host cell in order to live (in that case are they really alive?) and epidemics arise as a new virus colonizes hosts with great rapidity. With Covid 19 the effects of this colonization range from the barely noticeable to the life threatening for the elderly or immune or respiratory compromised person.

Possible defenses: (a) to host the virus, recover and therefore achieve immunity from further attacks;

(b) to have a vaccination which gives a mild and tolerable dose of the virus through which immunity is achieved (unfortunately, there is no vaccine to date);

(c) to control the spread of the virus by minimizing contact between hosts and potential hosts. There are varying ways to minimize contacts: closing borders so that hosts from outside a geographic area can’t make contact; banning gatherings and isolating hosts, potential hosts (because of contact) and those most in danger; total lockdown in order to deny the possibility of further hosting of the virus.

This trajectory, which we are currently experiencing, is a trajectory from science to regulation, but the science has often been missed out or an understanding supposed and the defences, expressed as regulation, create some interesting contradictions.

Because of the virulence of the coronavirus we are asked to self isolate and fear the other possible carrier, but also to act as if we have the virus, which means that we should fear ourselves in relation to the other. This state of alienation is, at the same time, an act of social solidarity. Usually these states of paranoia have been focused on a common enemy, but, in this case, the enemy is internal.

And the solidarity, expressed as paranoia, is based on supposition, until the illness is actually embodied, when it assumes reality. And the reality is not overwhelming, if, for example, the numbers of dead are compared with road deaths, deaths from influenza, malaria, conflict etc.

But an important element of the reality is the potential to overwhelm and then the actual overwhelming of what are often, stressed health systems by this additional wave of ill people requiring isolation and intensive care.

There are resonances with other moments in sociology and history. The level of paranoia is similar to that of those early bands of people, when anyone outside the band was considered dangerous and would be killed or driven away. This is repeating itself, with isolated communities wishing to put up the barricades and visitors to be driven off.

There are other times of paranoia, for example, the treatment of enemy aliens living within our society during the war years, when they were considered the probable carriers of dangerous sympathies. There was the McCarthy period when the virus of communism was supposedly threatening democratic life.

There is the sad sight of consumerism being the only solver of anxiety for some, leading to panic buying in supermarkets.

There is the absolutely abhorrent continuance of US embargoes on countries like Iran, Cuba and Venezuela and the Israeli/US treatment of Palestine.

There are signs of a resentment among some young people against the boomers who have done so much to make life difficult for them and their future children and this resentment is couched in irresponsible behavior and an attitude of letting a proportion of compromised oldies die rather than destroy the economy.

Some leaders seriously considered the herd immunity approach, where most catch the virus and safely recover and thereby achieve immunity, meanwhile all the energy of the system is focused on protecting the vulnerable and economic and social life is allowed to continue. But this approach is heavily criticized by medical leaders and the potential death toll and the overwhelming of the medical system become unacceptable.

There is the populist regional dweller, suspicious and recalcitrant when faced with being told what to do by the ‘rational state’ and the difficulty of simple regulation faced with on-the-ground complexity: blended families with shared child care make staying at home problematic; why can’t I go to my empty office?; over seventies are as varied in health as any other age group; what are essential services?; who’s policing all this?; the mother helping the daughter down the road with her new born suddenly not being able to do so; why can’t we decide for ourselves our level of risk?; what’s the exit strategy?…and there comes into existence the further ‘dobbing in’ paranoia of  any state command system plus a self righteous ‘being good’ syndrome and a sentimental nationalism.

There is a reasonable certainty that this will provide a further leap into the digital world, with online learning, meetings etc becoming the norm; and the realization that this in turn means a bolstering of the control of the big digital organisations. It is likely that the paranoia about ‘the other’ will continue to some degree and add to the popularity of the digital.

Of course leaders are not averse to this sort of crisis: to be ‘at war’ makes life easier politically. Difficult coalition partners toe the line, the opposition is left somewhat helpless, all eyes are on the governors, and unless you seriously stuff things up, it will bode well come election time.

But above all the crisis has allowed this government to do some seriously good things: the raising of benefit levels, the easing of family support hours, general support for out of work workers which may get us used to Universal Basic Income type systems, banks coming on board with mortgage holidays and hopefully, it heralds the death knell of neo liberal anti-interventionism. In this it is vastly different from the Global Financial Crisis when the investment sector was supported rather than working people.

Finally, it is mana for the media, supplying endless content. Only the cynic would say that when the media is tired of it, the coronavirus will disappear.

Above all, it feels like a rehearsal for the disruption that will arise from climate change.

As we all settle down and stop flying around the world and limit domestic travel and the entertainment scene shrinks, it feels like the fifties again. A neurotic energy dissipates. There will be the irritability, the denial, the panic, the magical thinking of the addict denied the fix, but hopefully some greater semblance of resilience will result, with the knowledge that the extended family practicing subsistence has been the most sustainable form of human society.

Covid 19

‘The human being, conceived as an electronic, cybernetic machine, makes a perfect home for viruses and viral illnesses, just as computers provide an ideal terrain for electronic viruses…

‘He who lives by the same will die by the same. The impossibility of exchange, or reciprocity, of alterity secretes that other invisible, diabolic, elusive alterity, that absolute Other, the virus, itself made up of simple elements and of recurrence to infinity.

‘In a world cleansed of its old infections, in an ‘ideal’ clinical world, an intangible, implacable pathology unfurls, a pathology born of disinfection itself.

‘…viruses are concerns not just for the police, medicine, science and the experts, but for the entire collective imagination.  This is because there is more to them than mere episodic events in an irrational world. They embody the entire logic of our system, and are merely, so to speak, the points at which that logic crystallizes spectacularly. Their power is a power of irradiation and their effect, through the media, within the imagination, is itself a viral one.’

The French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard wrote the above in 2002. He was referring to AIDS, terrorism and computer viruses, but his words prophetically encapsulate Covid 19 and its effects.  Suddenly every human being is potentially Other. And the speed of transmission of Otherness in a globalised, electronic world is extraordinary. This is postmodernism taken to the extremes of alienation. Diversity must self-isolate. Gathering is cancelled.

But it is also another element of the climate crisis world and hopefully the wakeup call, if we can connect the two. Tomatoes, as well as viruses have to stop flying around the world. Cruise ships are ridiculous. Tourism of the selfie sort is a parody. Some borders are necessary. We need to quieten down and work on our back yard.

I was talking to a shuttle passenger my own age and we started with the sensible idea of permaculture and moved on to childhood days when clothes and shoes were locally made and socks and jerseys were darned and shoes resoled and you could buy a new element for the toaster or electric jug. That would bring down the world economy, we realised.

Oh well, so be it.

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