Workers of the world, self-isolate!

Craig Berry

There is nothing like a pandemic to amplify the class dynamics, hitherto on mute, which underpin social order. In the Anglosphere, public culture combines awareness of each and every person’s proper place — signalled by accent, attire, and demeanour, etc., as well as education, occupation, and postcode — with ignorance of how those of different tribes earn, live, and think.

The left has been trying to come to terms with the inherent difficulties of mobilising the working class, and of forming cross-class alliances, since the first radicals broke from the lineage of liberalism. Karl Marx’s distinction between a class in itself (defined by its relation to the means of production) and a class for itself (having attained collective consciousness), further developed by George Lukács in the early twentieth century, set the tone. Antonio Gramsci explored the role of ideological hegemony in pacifying working class resistance to capitalism.

In England, the profound differentness of the working-class – or its unfamiliarity to the educated – demanded more microscopic study by socialist intellectuals. Labour historians such as E.P. Thompson softened the determinism of early Marxist approaches by considering the formation of working-class consciousness, and its manifestations, an object of study in its own right, since the path to socialist awakening was not preordained. George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) had by then already exposed the gulf in how socialism was viewed between the proletariat and their ‘book-trained’ advocates:

For it must be remembered that a working man, so long as he remains a genuine working man, is seldom or never a Socialist in the complete, logically consistent sense. Very likely he votes Labour, or even Communist if he gets the chance, but his conception of Socialism is quite different from that of the book-trained Socialist higher up. To the ordinary working man, the sort you would meet in any pub on Saturday night, Socialism does not mean much more than better wages and shorter hours and nobody bossing you about.

These are enduring problems for the left: how to mobilise the working class, how to build cross-class alliances – and how, quite simply, to know about the working class. Yet a problematique for the left is, most of the time, no problem at all for society at large. Enter the virus. Now that every other person is rendered a severe threat to our own health, simply by existing, we are forced to confront how little we understand about each other. And the economic policy response demanded by the pandemic, by disrupting a system of inequality we experience as normality, asks us questions we may not have the intellectual resources to answer.

Life as we know it

History, for the moment, is on pause. Yet life, which pays little regard to the dialectic, is not. This is especially the case, it seems, for those accused of not taking the Covid-19 outbreak seriously, by ignoring edicts on social distancing.

Many millions carried on as normal, at least for longer than they should have. As the chart below shows (see here for data), to a greater extent than any other country, the general public in the UK considers that its own collective response has been insufficient. Of course, it is ‘other people’, not our own behaviour, that we point the finger at.

And for all the lolz about artisan food markets in London and traffic jams in the Peak District, the #COVIDIOTS backlash has been a largely classist discourse, aimed primarily at the proles packing out the pubs. The feeds are already abuzz with concerns that the reopening of pubs when the lockdown ends will trigger a second wave of the outbreak. The United States and Australia are also at the top of the scale depicted below, closely followed by the Netherlands (the most Anglicised nation of mainland Western Europe).

That this behaviour is indefensible does not render it inexplicable. That many working-class people were content to maintain certain habits, despite all evidence that the behaviours were, well, sub-optimal, both for themselves and everyone else, speaks to the power of habituated practice. In pandemics, as in politics.

Crucially, habits are not random. They tend to die hard because they serve a purpose. If you lack agency to remedy the inequalities that dictate your life chances, then you are conditioned to repeat whichever behaviours help get you through; the end of the world might even mean these habits die harder, if they function as coping mechanisms.

Getting lashed with your mates on a Friday night is an excellent case in point. The prospect of self-isolation is difficult to contemplate if it has not been preceded by the self-actualisation the better-off strata take for granted. Yet a less pronounced embrace of individualism individualism creates more positive traits too, such as a neighbourliness — ranging from saying hello to ad hoc caring responsibilities — a hidden humanity seemingly being discovered for the first time by many newly homebound, invariably via WhatsApp.

The home front

As the state rightly grabs the baton of capitalist management from the market, the specific policy choices made by our leaders have largely reinforced pre-pandemic class structures.

For example, the UK government’s advice on whether people should be staying away from work has been confusing precisely because our leaders are confused. Working-class employees in the public sector and working for large service sector employers generally do work which is less essential to core business. Yet working at home is a redundant concept if the point of your job is to be available to support higher-skilled staff, or indeed to maintain the physical workspace.

Distance is crippling, and technology is, at best, only a partial remedy. If I may declare an interest, my mum, an administrative assistant for local social services, is in one of these categories. Not, in covidist parlance, a ‘key worker’, but part of an essential service, and irreplaceable at the moment.

This is to say nothing of the vast, working-class army in retail, logistics and food production. They cannot work from home, but if they do not work, we die. The government is torn between rewarding such workers if they choose to keep calm and carry on, or disciplining them to ensure they have no choice. (Of course, we die, either way, if they work infected, which is why we will see the state rationalise these activities as the virus spreads.)

For now, the one group now expected to carry on whatever the weather is the middle-class professionals able to work from home, even if their work serves absolutely no pandemic-related purpose, and even if they are required to simultaneously home-school their children. The notion that this burden of economic continuity will fall only on white-collar workers, while parts of the working class settle into indefinite paid leave, demands an uprooting of industrial relations that even Covid-19 cannot engineer.

The covidist manifesto

Propping up a furloughed workforce has become a key plank of covidism in the UK, but so too has the mechanisation of this support via private firms and their creditors (that is, wage subsidies rather than direct income support to workers, and loan guarantees rather than direct government finance to firms). Many people will lose their job regardless, or see their pay reduced, such is the flimsiness of employment protection in the Anglosphere.

The support belatedly announced for the self-employed in the UK is particularly inadequate. Replacing 80 per cent of lost earnings for the self-employed is certainly better than a poke in the eye. Yet it is hardly more generous than the out-of-work benefit system that already exists in many European countries. A Beveridgean moment, this is not. How many pandemics will it take to reverse austerity?

Much of the critical response has rightly focused on the long delay before payouts will be received. Mortgage holidays will be an easy fix for some, because the debt can simply be elongated, but there will be no staycation for rent, utility or food bills. The scheme does not include those who have only recently become self-employed, or those who use self-employment in combination with formal employment to supplement low wages.

Equally revealing is the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s insistence that the scheme has been designed to minimise opportunities for fraudulent claims: could this not have gone without saying, on primetime television, for the time being? He also warned that, when all this is over, the self-employed can expect higher tax rates in return for support offered now. A bad idea before will still be a bad idea after.

To declare another interest, my dad and brother, as self-employed plasterers, will probably benefit from the scheme. Yet my brother is uncertain whether he will claim. Despite additional risks associated with catching Covid-19, he would rather be working. He articulates this as needing to “keep customers happy”. “Daft I know,” he adds.

It is not daft at all. Working class tradespeople know in their bones that normality will resume at some point, and they are conditioned not to rely on safety nets. Word-of-mouth is everything in the plastering trade: my brother knows what it takes to survive Anglo-liberal capitalism, and that this might be jeopardised by what it takes to survive Covid-19.

And this speaks to a more fundamental conditioning, that is, of working class identities being defined by their occupation for many people. Some theorists would describe this as ‘false consciousness’, but clearly an identity can be simultaneously false and forceful. Social distancing will involve self-distancing too.


There will now proceed a levelling, of sorts. There is a long way to go: our understanding of each other will evolve as we face this crisis, as alone as possible, in a physical sense, but also irreducibly together. For sure, the public sector, which belongs to all of us, will continue to expand. There is certainly more recognition than has been evident in my lifetime that the general public appreciates the many essential functions performed by working-class people for our shared society.

Will this last? Will it be reflected in political action to address inequalities, when emergency conditions recede? When we are liberated from our homes, will we be liberated too from the pre-pandemic social order? Perhaps — that my instinctive answer is not ‘no’ is itself a revolutionary shift — but only if we recognise that how we are able to cope now, and indeed allowed to cope, will invariably reflect the lives we lived before.

Craig Berry is Reader in Political Economy at Manchester Metropolitan University

A shorter version of this post originally appeared on the SPERI Blog.

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