COVID-19 has revealed the fatal consequences of systemic prejudice. But, argues Rowan Fortune, the ensuing crisis is already being met by a further ramping up of prejudice.
4 May 2020.
While the uneven impact of COVID-19 is exposing social injustices in the UK (and elsewhere), the UK governing party is cultivating separate and new injustices.
The elderly, the sick and disabled, BAME people, ‘essential workers’, and many other vulnerable groups suffer disproportionately. While Nina Fortune has written extensively about the socio-economic disadvantages and structural racism that has left BAME people especially vulnerable to infection and death, it is worth also pausing to consider two different, but overlapping groups.
Government advice on the 2 April insisted that patients with COVID-19 ‘can be safely cared for in a care home’. The result of that decision, for the old and sick, and especially combined with the broader failure to provide adequate testing, PPE, and clear health advice to the public, has been a disaster.
One care home owner in Devon characterised the situation bluntly, describing ‘the policy as “importing death into care homes” and has accused the government of sacrificing the elderly.’
On 18 April, Care England estimated that deaths in care homes could be four times greater than government estimates, as ‘7,500 care home residents may have died of the virus’. Only recently has the government bothered counting the scale of this social murder in its official estimates.
Late March, NICE had to amend their COVID-19 guidelines for people with autism, learning disorders, and mental health issues. The problem being corrected concerned advice on how to rank people for admission to hospital after infection, based on their general wellness.
Even if we accept the brutal triage mentality on display in one of the richest countries in the world, we must still ask why a condition such as autism could be deemed relevant to receiving treatment for a respiratory virus. The ableist attitude demonstrated by this illogic is filtering down, with one GP surgery implying that autistic adults should not be resuscitated when they become critically ill with COVID-19.
We have already seen that the Boris Johnson regime is deeply attracted to the pseudoscience of eugenics. Operating in the background of the monstrous choices the British government is making are a set of ideas on, to use a phrase of our Prime Minister’s, the ‘spiritual worth’ of different people.
The Tory Party are explicitly dabbling in the most evil ideas of modern history, ideas that find their realisation in unimaginable horrors. The Left needs to realise what is currently at stake, because the Right is preparing the ground for the next, barbaric stage in its culture war.
The Shit of Ages
Whether appointing Trevor Phillips, a man expelled from the Labour Party for Islamophobia, to investigate COVID-19 related BAME deaths, dogwhistling against trans children during a pandemic, or running an explicitly racist anti-Roma General Election campaign, all indications now suggest that the Conservatives are openly trying out different potential future scapegoats in the same manner as a clothes shopper might don different items of attire.
To those who lack a theoretical understanding of Creeping Fascism, as outlined by Neil Faulkner, Samir Dathi, Phil Hearse, and Seema Syeda, these attacks can seem the natural outpourings of a toxic party or, for those sadly more sympathetic to the Right, the Left exaggerating mere outliers.
What makes sense of these attacks is a better comprehension of how prejudice is leveraged and used by capitalism as a safety valve against the discontent the system’s faults inevitably produce. To quote Faulkner et al, the Far Right, in pursuit of creeping fascism:
is a concentrated expression of what Marx called ‘the shit of ages’ – nationalism, racism, xenophobia, sexism, militarism, deference, power-worship – which wells up from the sewers of the capitalist system in periods of crisis. This magnetic core attracts a human dust of atomised, alienated, anomic people around it, the detritus of decaying social layers at the base of the system. And it gains critical force as reactionary classes rally behind it as a defence-work for property, power, and the status quo.
People are not stupid, as moralists wish to believe. They grasp that the social organisation of society is profoundly awry, which is especially apparent during a crisis, but the reasons for society’s problems are obscured to them. It is easy to jump to assuming a vague maleficence and attach it to some bogeyman of past or recent hatred. The Tories are experimenting with ways of redirecting anger to their political advantage. They are targeting, however cautiously, however tentatively, groups they suspect will not attract much sustained sympathy or solidarity.
Trans British people suffer disproportionately high rates of abuse, under- and unemployment, work-based discrimination, and therefore unsurprisingly, mental health problems. The BBC has reported that last year hate crimes against trans people rose a staggering 81%, likely reflecting hostility fostered by the ongoing culture war.
Liz Truss’s latest statement about legislation for the recognition of transgender people represents a further worsening of the government’s approach, attacking even the limited support young trans people currently receive. For the broader trans community, looking elsewhere, it foreshadows their deepest fears.
On the persecution of trans people, Britain’s reactionaries are still lagging behind their long time friend, the antisemitic Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán; he has used dictatorial powers to launch an all-out assault on trans rights, driving trans people to the worst imaginable desperation. Poland has gone further still, declaring LGBT+ free zones.
Across the world, the Right has identified trans people (as well as all women and the wider LGBT community) as a potentially easy target. It remains the duty of the Left to prove the Right to be wrong.
Since the post-9/11 period, Islam remains a source of intense vilification in Europe, the Anglosphere, and elsewhere. Muslims are routinely caricatured by British media, which has been shown to harbour strong biases against them.
While many Muslims are suffering from a greater vulnerability to the coronavirus than the average, it is adding insult on to mass death to have this scandal investigated by someone considered hostile to Muslim people. The aim is clear: to send a message to wider society that Muslim deaths are not taken seriously by the British state.
If doubt ever existed that bigotry to Roma, Gypsies, and travellers remains permissible, Channel 4’s disgraceful ‘documentary’ Dispatches: Truth About Traveller Crime should disabuse anyone of their skepticism. Described by Friends, Families and Travellers as ‘dehumanising, unbalanced, and unfair’, this programme linked individual crime to a whole community in a way that is typical of racist myth-making.
Such attacks are possible, in part, because there is a pre-established and appalling ignorance about the historical injustices that have already been suffered by this group of people, most shockingly in the Pharrajimos (the Nazi genocide of the Romani), but also including many more crimes that go further back and evidently continue to the present.
Workers and the Oppressed
BAME people, the elderly, the sick and disabled, Muslims, trans people, Gypsies, Roma, and travellers are all under attack. The marginalised suffer doubly. First, because they are put into positions of vulnerability by unjust systems, which is heightened during a crisis such as an economic shock or pandemic. Second, however, because socially legitimised hatred can serve as an all-too-convenient tool to a ruling class that can no longer maintain its social contract with those from whom it requires consent. The liberal press recognise when small fascist groups manipulate people in this way, but are often slow to see it in the broader establishment.
The Right-wing demonstrates a cruel insight when they go specifically after Muslims, trans, and Roma communities. They know that these groups are currently ‘respectable’ targets of mass hate. Muslims, travellers, and trans people are already grievously vilified by the press, who can sell more copy by pandering to received opinion than they can by challenging it. And like any predator, the Tory Party is sniffing out vulnerability – not just for marginalised groups, but groups so marginalised that, they hope, few even on the Left will notice. The refusal of some sections of the Left to take the culture war seriously, as highlighted by Phil Hearse, is a weakness reactionaries exploit.
The truth the Left must grasp is that the working class and the oppressed are inseparable. The working class are workers who unite in solidarity, recognising a shared human interest in the transformation of a society that can no longer meet their needs. Such solidarity can happen only when they refuse to turn their anger against each other, against workers from other countries or who are trans and nonbinary, Muslim and Roma, elderly and disabled.
Prejudice might well be an inherent defect of human imagination, a tendency to mistake abstract categories for reality and think along in-group lines, but the calcification of prejudice occurs in class society to obscure the social contradictions that plagues and debases our humanity.
It is easy to see this process retrospectively, to see historically when powerful interests fear people coming together in an emancipatory struggle, and so turn neighbour against neighbour. It is often harder to see it is happening in front of us.
During COVID-19 the normalised regime of capital accumulation has been obstructed, albeit mildly compared to what is coming in the form of the climate crisis. Irrespective of public health, that obstruction will need to end.
Whether it is Jair Bolsonaro or Matteo Salvini joining anti-lockdown anti-democracy protests or Donald Trump giving tacit support to similar far-right movements in the United States, it is clear that capital around the world is attempting to get back to business, no matter how many die as a consequence.
In the UK, the Tory 1922 Committee has signalled its support for the goals of Bolsonaro, Salvini, and Trump. The horrifying disregard for human life this requires means that anger will need to be focussed away from right-wing regimes.
The Left has a role in combatting prejudice. When they fail in this, as Keir Starmer has by failing to vocally oppose the Modi regime’s atrocities while adopting the rhetoric of nationalism at home, they functionally cease to be on the Left.
It is the historic task of socialists to popularise the ideas and organisations that allow us to overcome capitalism. We must be the ones out there making the arguments, showing people that their anger has been misdirected, not contributing to that very misdirection. This means possessing the courage and theory to make our case. If, instead, we surrender a part of the working class to bigotry, we are acting against the possibility of the formation of a working class as a social force, and therefore against the realisation of socialism.
Some might believe we can fight the Tories by retreating to a realm of pure economics, one somehow divorced from the oppressions of race, gender, sexuality, disability, and so on – that we can win on job creation, infrastructure development, and public services alone, and that the rest will organically follow.
The Right are counting on us to make such a fateful error, and provide them with the opportunity to redirect popular rage. In consequence, the Left will by met by no desire for its plans, but only an atomised mass that seeks to sate genuine grievances in cruelty against the innocent, which is to say, against each other.
Rowan Fortune is a West London activist and student of utopia; Citizens of Nowhere, a recently published anthology of utopic fiction, demonstrates the genre's enduring relevance.