One of the most astute observations I saw made over the course of the pandemic was that much public discussion about the virus rested on the unspoken contention that covid-19 is transmitted not by close person to person contact, primarily in under-ventilated spaces, but by individual failure: by self indulgence, and by sin. Stories of the neighbours having friends round; scenes of crowded parks; of groups failing to social distance; drinking in public, or dancing; reports of people driving for a change of scenery on their daily walk rather than going for a trudge around the neighbourhood like everyone else. Some of these things legitimately present a risk of transmission; some of them, in any meaningful way, do not. The campaign that called on people to stay at home to “protect the NHS” was effective and necessary; its upshot, however, is that we have all spent more than a year engaged in a campaign of state-sponsored curtain twitching of a particularly extreme bent. It is hard to imagine a more complete exercise in enforced conformity; nor a better way to inculcate in the populace the already prevalent idea that on a moral level some lifestyles are simply better – for us, for me, for us, for all – than others.
It is not surprising, given the all-encompassing scale of this project, that we are beginning to see a kind of psychic mission creep. Recent Ipsos Mori polling for the Economist found that 19% of people, regardless of the Covid situation, support a 10pm curfew; 26% support permanent closure of night clubs. This week the launch of the new national food strategy has been couched in the pandemic-familiar language of “protecting the NHS”, with report author Henry Dimbleby asking Today programme listeners, “is the freedom to keep Frosties cheap worth destroying the NHS”?
If we step back and look at the kind of life that might be permissible under these frames, its shape is likewise unsurprising. Don’t go out too late or eat too much; don’t be frivolous, do be monogamous, eat your vegetables and be in bed by ten.
There is a lot you can say about this. You can argue that sugar taxes are taxes on the poor in all but name; you can say that in a country where half of people socialise outside the home only once a month or less (and if we’re doing public health: that loneliness is as bad for you as heavy smoking) anything that creates stigma around socialising is very bad indeed. You could say that Covid is offering the opportunity for the DWPification of the entire apparatus of the state, the chance for us all to live in the venal bureaucratic morality tale of the two-child cap and the benefits fraud hotline. You can say that the government hung all kinds of people and whole sectors of the economy out to dry to create a permission structure that views any non-working life outside the home as at best indulgent and at worst immoral.
You could say all of these things, but I will say this – if you think everyone should be home by 10pm, or that eating fatty foods constitutes a failure in your duty to the NHS, or your answer to “when will the we have proper gigs again” is a purse-lipped “maybe never”, I think you are possibly someone who has no capacity to imagine other people’s lives. I do not mean to loosely picture their day to day, to know that out on the streets there are others also: I mean to be able to think about what it is really like to be someone else, someone whose values and experiences are perhaps radically different.
The stock of libertarianism is not high on the British left, more likely to summon up images of Sajid Javid reading Ayn Rand than anything else. Nonetheless, there is something to be said for the animating conviction that people’s lives are their own. One person’s frivolity is another person’s priority. Some people would happily never set foot in a nightclub again; some people would not know who they are without them. Our lives are not held in trust; we are not going to get money taken off the deposit if we mistreat them. If a state or a culture is acting if this is the case then they are the ones who are sick.
Individual choice and collective responsibility are some of the biggest questions going. The answers are not simple, and the terrain on which they are fought is often disingenuous – I do not, for example, think that anyone’s freedom is meaningfully curtailed by being made to wear a mask on public transport – but we should be more spirited in our defence of people’s ability to live the lives that they find worth in (you do not need to spend all of your time reading Hakim Bey to recognise that there is value in entering unfamiliar states) and more condemnatory of the cultural undertow that would like to see us all turn into minor characters in Brief Encounter.
In his recent, entirely charming defence of smoking – and of allowing people to choose their own vices – the artist David Hockney wrote that “longevity shouldn’t be an aim in life; that to me seems life denying”. You may agree with him; you may not. Nonetheless, our aims in life should be our own; I have no desire to see the excesses of austerity laundered through personal responsibility into a bourgeois morality state.