As the autumn gloom sets in, and the days are becoming noticeably shorter, it’s time to start adapting to the wet and cold days that will drag on through the winter months. These days, for me at least, seem endless and short of possibility. On top of this we also have the Covid-19 pandemic to deal with. After squandering the opportunity to bring the pandemic under control over the summer, the UK government has failed to bring about significant and material change that is able to mitigate what was always going to be an inevitable second spike in the infection rate.
It wasn’t difficult to predict that as winter closes in there would be a steep rise in the number of reported Covid-19 cases and deaths. Up to now we have been fighting the phoney war, with the real battle only just beginning. This is a struggle that will require much deeper-rooted expectations of change than our government has been able to muster, or has wanted to place on people. The Prime Minister is incapable of asking for people to change. Johnson is incapable of defining what that change might consist of and how it might be applied.
I like to think of myself as a balanced person. Someone who can maintain an equilibrium between positive and negative feelings about life, and the challenges that it presents us with. I have little time for grudges or lingering resentments. I would rather get on with the next project than to get bogged down in an endless recycling of perceived slights and missed opportunities. I prefer optimism to pessimism, faith to doubt, and joy to misery. The problem, though, is at what point do I begin to acknowledge that my optimism is misplaced and a sign of potential delusion? At what point do I start to share my concern at the risk of being considered a misery guts? Well here goes.
I believe we have reached the point at which we need to open our eyes and ears to the untold misery that our government’s response to the pandemic is going to have. It’s now time to say, really, we are fucked, and no amount of positive thinking is going to get us out of this difficulty. Things are not going to get better soon. Indeed, for many people things are going to get a whole lot worse, as our bubble of collective delusion is pricked, and we come crashing down to earth, only to find that the land beneath us is barren and inhospitable.
In this situation it is common for many people to want to keep our spirits up, and to try to manufacture a sense of hope and enduring social solidarity. The simulation of hope suggests that things are not as bad as they seem, and that all it will take to move on is self-belief. What if this is just nonsense? What if things are actually much worse than they seem, and that in projecting a positive persona we are making things worse for ourselves? What if we can’t pull together a sense of resilience and fortitude in the face of such overwhelming change? What if we aren’t equipped with the resources and capacity to withstand this change? What if we have failed to develop the basic building blocks of security and social cohesion, and now we are paying the price for years of deluded self-belief in the power of individualism? A belief which has repeatedly mocked and disparaged collective provision and efforts to develop embedded and practical social security?
We can’t simply project a sense of resilience. We have to build a resilient society first. We can’t just Tweet that everything will be okay, believing that if we pretend that things might be okay, then there is some possibility that things will turn out fine. Dr Pangloss would be happy as a communications advisor to many civic organisations, charities and public bodies at the moment. Everything is the best in all possible worlds. We can simply fake it until we make it.
The truth is, however, that we can’t pretend that we have a plan to support people, if what it involves is them channelling their inner grit and self-determination. Everything will be okay if you click your heals and count to three. The truth is, we don’t have the option of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. The pandemic is not an exercise in public relations that can be won through the use of clever slogans, marketing gimmicks and media briefings. What started as a public health crisis, and became an economic crisis, is becoming a political crisis that is going to undermine the democratic legitimacy, not only of our economy, but the state itself.
The cycle of doom is well represented in the symbol of the Ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail. We are doomed to continue to make the same mistakes, over and over again. The slogan of our time has been that ‘you can have your cake and eat it.’ Like the symbol of the snake eating its own tail, the pandemic is demonstrating that our supposed certainty is based on our faith that there will be a linear answer. This is misplaced, as Robert A Johnson argues, “there is a universal sense in humans that there is a unity and cohesion at the heart of life, and that it is possible for us to be consciously aware of it.” However, as Carl Jung points out, “what in one place is a river of grace is a deadly poison in another.”
I grew up in Liverpool in the 1970s and 1980s, so I know what it’s like to live in a community that has been abandoned and blamed for its own decline. The process of deindustrialisation that hit the UK was a political choice made by the Thatcher government. It succeeded because Thatcher and her followers were able to blame one part of the population for their misfortune. Arguing that they had brought it on themselves because they were deficient. They lacked the entrepreneurialism of others. Many people gobbled up this myth and went along with the divisive politics that it promoted. This myth of individualism guaranteed those who followed it a sense of superiority over those deficient people they considered to be unworthy and morally inferior. The British working class was sacrificed on the altar of international finance and property speculation based on an alliance of cultural moralisers.
This approach was wrong then and it is wrong now. Our government under Prime Minister Johnson is rushing headlong into a laissez-faire response to the health crisis and the economic crises. They believe it will benefit them politically, in the way the cruel response of Thatcher benefited the Conservative party in the 1980s. Johnson and his followers, are repeating the same choices. The damage that is about to be wrought in the name of economic liberalism, which includes Brexit, is going to take decades to recover from – if recovery is possible at all? This damage will be permanent, and only superficial and unsustainable alternatives can be used to paper-over the crumbling social infrastructure that is left behind. More shopping centres and supermarkets can’t be built again as a way of mitigating the damage that millions of our fellow citizens are going to face as they are left to rot.
The political choices that are being made in government today are destined to bring about large-scale destitution and penury for millions of people. False optimism and the denial of reality is not what we need right now. We need to get the public relations and marketing people out of government, and put the engineers, health providers, social reformers and educators back at the heart of our political and governmental processes. But make no mistake, our fatalism and sense of doom is essential to our response. We need to confront our worst fears. We need people who can work out the worst-case scenarios and do what they can to mitigate the damage when we fall headlong into them.
Much of what we have taken for granted about our way of life for the last fifty years is going to be overturned. There is going to be a widespread laying waste to what we’ve assumed we are entitled to. Many people are going to be thrown on the scrapheap by an uncaring and self-interested government that will fight the truth, and will protect the interests of its own tribe before it does anything to support the rest of us. My advice is that we should get ready for increased social division and disruption. In the 1980s metal shutters went up over the windows of the high street shops in Liverpool and Leicester. They have never been taken down. Changes that we make now will be permanent. Despite the optimism of building back better, we must face the reality that many things will get a lot worse, and that this will be made permanent and structural.
Expect bungs to be made to the Tory tribe that will keep them electorally secure, based on their belief that they are moral superior. Which will be backed-up by the newspapers and mainstream news media that has a vested interest in perpetuating this delusion. Expect an excess of moralism and blame from politicians who will gorge on the misfortune and misery of others, while at the same time denying them the practical tools and resources to do anything about their circumstances. Expect things to get a lot worse. There will be no good times ahead, and a sense of false optimism will only make our response that much more difficult.
Carl Jung says that the river of grace, which is at the same time poisonous, also harbours the “potentialities of healing.” In true Jungian fashion, we are going to have to go through the pain and suffering ahead of us, and be clear about where it comes from within us. We are going to have to face our demons, doubts and uncertainties before we can reach the transcendent point where healing and change is possible. We have to open ourselves to the abyss before we can aim for the mountain top. But let’s be realistic, this particular abyss is scary as hell, and the first step in dealing with it is to accept that.