COVID-19: Institutional Inertia, the Need for Vision, and the Collapse of the US and the UK

11.8.20

Donald Trump and Boris Johnson both wearing masks as protection against the coronavirus COVID-19. Trump wore a mask in public for thew first time just a month ago, having previously said that he would not do so. The day before, Johnson, who is rarely seen at all, wore a mask for the first time in public while visiting businesses in his Uxbridge constituency.

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Six months since the arrival of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, prompted an unprecedented lockdown on social and economic activity, a veneer of normality has been resumed, although it remains an uneasy time. Pubs and restaurants are open, cars once more fill the streets, turning the taste of the air to one of petrol after months without it, and zombie shoppers once more return to high streets and shopping malls to buy clothing produced in factories — mostly in the “developing world” — that involves economic exploitation of the unseen, and nothing short of environmental destruction, as these factories kill off rivers with their noxious chemicals.

As I see on an almost daily basis, however, on my bike rides into the West End and the City of London to take photos for my ongoing photo-journalism project ‘The State of London’, the veneer is very thin. Although people have been returning to the West End since June 15, when “non-essential” shops were allowed to to reopen, the numbers are down, and massively so.

As I explained in my most recent COVID-related article, COVID-19: Workers and Employers Show No Great Enthusiasm for Returning to the Office to Revive “Business As Usual”, 5.1m people visited the West End in the first full month of the post-lockdown re-opening of retail outlets, but that was 73% down year-on-year, and will not enable businesses to survive unless landlords also write off 73% of their rents. If they do, the virus will have succeeded in denting the wealth of the rich; if they don’t, the West End will soon be a wasteland of shuttered shops, because however much some people are enjoying al fresco street dining in pedestrianised streets in Soho, there is an achingly huge financial hole where the tourists and office workers used to be.

Part of this is because of the collapse of international tourism, and the ongoing refusal of office workers to return to paranoid, sanitised workplaces after months of working — largely successfully — from home, but it is also due to the termination, since March, of all forms of live culture. The West End’s theatres, which used to draw huge and regular audiences from across the Uk and around the world for their main business these days — musicals — have been shut since March, cinemas are still shut, despite having been allowed to reopen, and music venues and nightclubs are also shut.

The loss of live culture is, for many people, the most depressing aspect of the coronavirus, and I share those feelings. I miss live music and theatre, I miss the buzz and warmth of social gatherings, and the easy manner in which we used to embrace close friends, and to hug — really hug — those we loved the most, but the bigger picture, as the virus continues to stalk us, waiting for us to slip up and get too promiscuously sociable, is our seeming inability to embrace the radical opportunities for massive political change that the virus has offered us — and particularly, it seems, in the US and the UK, both stymied by deluded notions of exceptionalism.

The Unraveling of America — and of the UK

In ‘The Unraveling of America’, a powerful article for Rolling Stone last week, anthropologist Wade Davis began by noting how “[p]andemics and plagues have a way of shifting the course of history, and not always in a manner immediately evident to the survivors” noting how, in the 14th Century, when “the Black Death killed close to half of Europe’s population”, a “scarcity of labor led to increased wages” and workers’ agitation for better living standards that “marked the beginning of the end of the feudal order that had dominated medieval Europe for a thousand years.”

Davis sees the COVID pandemic as “such a moment in history, a seminal event whose significance will unfold only in the wake of the crisis”, which “will mark this era much as the 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the stock market crash of 1929, and the 1933 ascent of Adolf Hitler became fundamental benchmarks of the last century, all harbingers of greater and more consequential outcomes.”

As he proceeds to explain:

COVID’s historic significance lies not in what it implies for our daily lives. Change, after all, is the one constant when it comes to culture. All peoples in all places at all times are always dancing with new possibilities for life. As companies eliminate or downsize central offices, employees work from home, restaurants close, shopping malls shutter, streaming brings entertainment and sporting events into the home, and airline travel becomes ever more problematic and miserable, people will adapt, as we’ve always done. Fluidity of memory and a capacity to forget is perhaps the most haunting trait of our species. As history confirms, it allows us to come to terms with any degree of social, moral, or environmental degradation.

There is, of course, as Davis also acknowledges, a huge financial cost to all this — and it may be that the loss of tens of millions of livelihoods, whose full impact has not yet been realised, will be to our hectic, messed-up, materialist neoliberal world what the Black Death was to feudal Europe, but what his article particularly focuses on is the fatal delusion of the United States — an analysis that also, repeatedly, has parallels with the UK.

As Davis explains:

No empire long endures, even if few anticipate their demise. Every kingdom is born to die. The 15th century belonged to the Portuguese, the 16th to Spain, 17th to the Dutch. France dominated the 18th and Britain the 19th. Bled white and left bankrupt by the Great War, the British maintained a pretense of domination as late as 1935, when the empire reached its greatest geographical extent. By then, of course, the torch had long passed into the hands of America.

Davis proceeds to write about how the US’s extraordinary productivity in the Second World War — shipyards building Liberty ships “at a rate of two a day for four years”, a single American factory, Chrysler’s Detroit Arsenal, building “more tanks than the whole of the Third Reich” — led, after the war, to a country with six percent of the world’s population accounting for “half of the global economy, including the production of 93 percent of all automobiles.”

As he explains:

Such economic dominance birthed a vibrant middle class, a trade union movement that allowed a single breadwinner with limited education to own a home and a car, support a family, and send his kids to good schools. It was not by any means a perfect world but affluence allowed for a truce between capital and labor, a reciprocity of opportunity in a time of rapid growth and declining income inequality, marked by high tax rates for the wealthy, who were by no means the only beneficiaries of a golden age of American capitalism.

However, the US’s “freedom and affluence came with a price.” Although the country was “virtually a demilitarized nation on the eve of the Second World War”, it “never stood down in the wake of victory.” What Jimmy Carter called “the most warlike nation in the history of the world” has, since 2001, “spent over $6 trillion on military operations and war, money that might have been invested in the infrastructure of home.” To add to this, the US led the cult of the individual, a destructive development that has since been exploited everywhere that sufficient disposable income exists to encourage people to think that their own self-gratification is more important that anything else.

In the post-war US, as Davis describes it, “What was gained in terms of mobility and personal freedom came at the expense of common purpose. In wide swaths of America, the family as an institution lost its grounding. By the 1960s, 40 percent of marriages were ending in divorce. Only six percent of American homes had grandparents living beneath the same roof as grandchildren; elders were abandoned to retirement homes.” The country also adopted a deranged work ethic, as “men and women exhausted themselves in jobs that only reinforced their isolation from their families.”

Particularly pernicious, however, as Davis also notes, is the galloping and relentless increase in inequality. As he describes it, “when the promise of a good life for a working family is shattered as factories close and corporate leaders, growing wealthier by the day, ship jobs abroad, the social contract is irrevocably broken.” He adds, “For two generations, America has celebrated globalization with iconic intensity, when, as any working man or woman can see, it’s nothing more than capital on the prowl in search of ever cheaper sources of labor.”

Cynically, the response of those on the right, politically, has been to invoke in the American people “a nostalgia for the 1950s, and an America that never was, but has to be presumed to have existed to rationalize their sense of loss and abandonment, their fear of change, their bitter resentments and lingering contempt for the social movements of the 1960s, a time of new aspirations for women, gays, and people of color.” The same process, very evidently, was used in the UK during the EU referendum, and has done colossal damage to the country over the last four years, as millions of people stew in a miasma of delusional bitterness, anger and racism, a process that cannot be satisfied, because its rosy future is an illusion, and that is fertile stalking ground for far-right authoritarians.

Exposing the lie of the revisionist right-wing 1950s dream, Davis explains how, in economic terms, the US of the 1950s “resembled Denmark as much as the America of today. Marginal tax rates for the wealthy were 90 percent. The salaries of CEOs were, on average, just 20 times that of their mid-management employees”, whereas, today, “the base pay of those at the top is commonly 400 times that of their salaried staff, with many earning orders of magnitude more in stock options and perks.”

As he also explains:

The elite one percent of Americans control $30 trillion of assets, while the bottom half have more debt than assets. The three richest Americans have more money than the poorest 160 million of their countrymen. Fully a fifth of American households have zero or negative net worth, a figure that rises to 37 percent for black families. The median wealth of black households is a tenth that of whites. The vast majority of Americans — white, black, and brown — are two paychecks removed from bankruptcy. Though living in a nation that celebrates itself as the wealthiest in history, most Americans live on a high wire, with no safety net to brace a fall.

The impact of COVID-19 on the US has been horrendous. As Davis puts it, “With the COVID crisis, 40 million Americans lost their jobs, and 3.3 million businesses shut down, including 41 percent of all black-owned enterprises. Black Americans, who significantly outnumber whites in federal prisons despite being but 13 percent of the population, are suffering shockingly high rates of morbidity and mortality, dying at nearly three times the rate of white Americans.” In the UK too, unemployment has reached levels not seen since the 1980s, and the worst is yet to come, as Aditya Chakrabortty noted in a recent Guardian article.

And yet, despite its claims of its own excellence, its own exceptionalism, the US response to the pandemic has been useless. Davis describes how, “As the crisis unfolded, with another American dying every minute of every day, a country that once turned out fighter planes by the hour could not manage to produce the paper masks or cotton swabs essential for tracking the disease. The nation that defeated smallpox and polio, and led the world for generations in medical innovation and discovery, was reduced to a laughing stock as a buffoon of a president advocated the use of household disinfectants as a treatment for a disease that intellectually he could not begin to understand.”

The UK is no different. 40 years of neoliberalism has created politicians whose defining characteristic is laziness, the purpose of their job, as they see it, being to transfer almost every aspect of economic activity that used to be in the hands of the state to private companies. In a little-known scandal, the corrupt and useless pimps of the British government — from Boris Johnson and his unelected chief advisor Dominic Cummings down through the ranks of the feeble-minded corporate pimps that make up his Cabinet — handed over billions of pounds to companies to deliver materials for the pandemic that never materialised, or spent outrageous amounts buying supplies from companies in other countries that were inadequate. Johnson, at the heart of his delusion, sees himself as akin to Winston Churchill, even though the Britain of the Second World War would probably have found a factory site and started producing what was needed within 24 hours.

Davis also notes how, “As a number of countries moved expeditiously to contain the virus, the United States stumbled along in denial, as if willfully blind. With less than four percent of the global population, the US soon accounted for more than a fifth of COVID deaths. The percentage of American victims of the disease who died was six times the global average. Achieving the world’s highest rate of morbidity and mortality provoked not shame, but only further lies, scapegoating, and boasts of miracle cures as dubious as the claims of a carnival barker, a grifter on the make.”

Again, the similarities with the UK are prominent. Tens of thousands of people died in the UK at the start of the pandemic because the government kept delaying the start of lockdown, with Johnson noticeably having repeatedly failed to attend meetings of COBRA, the organisation responsibly for addressing the UK’s response to emergency situations. The official death count in the UK today is over 46,000, while in the US it is over 166,000. With five times the UK population, the US death count would have to be 230,000 to be as bad as the death rate in the UK, and yet Johnson and his government, hiding behind a compliant media, have not been held to account for their murderous failures.

Memorably, Davis describes Trump as a president who “lives to cultivate resentments, demonize his opponents, validate hatred. His main tool of governance is the lie; as of July 9th, 2020, the documented tally of his distortions and false statements numbered 20,055.” A “dark troll of a man”, he “celebrates malice for all, and charity for none.” Crucially, however, “Trump is less the cause of America’s decline than a product of its descent.”

As Davis proceeds to explain:

As they stare into the mirror and perceive only the myth of their exceptionalism, Americans remain almost bizarrely incapable of seeing what has actually become of their country. The republic that defined the free flow of information as the life blood of democracy, today ranks 45th among nations when it comes to press freedom. In a land that once welcomed the huddled masses of the world, more people today favor building a wall along the southern border than supporting health care and protection for the undocumented mothers and children arriving in desperation at its doors. In a complete abandonment of the collective good, US laws define freedom as an individual’s inalienable right to own a personal arsenal of weaponry, a natural entitlement that trumps even the safety of children; in the past decade alone 346 American students and teachers have been shot on school grounds.

The American cult of the individual denies not just community but the very idea of society. No one owes anything to anyone. All must be prepared to fight for everything: education, shelter, food, medical care. What every prosperous and successful democracy deems to be fundamental rights — universal health care, equal access to quality public education, a social safety net for the weak, elderly, and infirmed — America dismisses as socialist indulgences, as if so many signs of weakness.

The UK is not quite as lost, but no one here should be complacent, as all the signs of America’s terminal moral decay are also present in the UK and have been growing remorselessly over the last 40 years. Brexit is Britain’s Mexican wall, and while British people should be grateful that there is no gun culture in the UK, the notion of a country in which “[n]o one owes anything to anyone” and “[a]ll must be prepared to fight for everything” looks ever more relevant to the UK.

Yes, we love our NHS, but it has been under major assault by the Tories since they first took office ten long and horrible years ago, and not for a moment have we come together to bring the country to a halt to defend it — or to have voted for a socialist alternative committed to preserving it — and meanwhile the notion of self-interest has become absolutely central to British life, threatening, corroding and destroying any notion of the “common good.”

In conclusion, Davis, who lives in Canada, tells the following story about the difference between the US and Canada, where there have been far fewer COVID-related deaths, focused on a supermarket shopping experience. “In the US”, he notes, “there is almost always a racial, economic, cultural, and educational chasm between the consumer and the check-out staff that is difficult if not impossible to bridge. In Canada, the experience is quite different. One interacts if not as peers, certainly as members of a wider community. The reason for this is very simple. The checkout person may not share your level of affluence, but they know that you know that they are getting a living wage because of the unions. And they know that you know that their kids and yours most probably go to the same neighborhood public school. Third, and most essential, they know that you know that if their children get sick, they will get exactly the same level of medical care not only of your children but of those of the prime minister. These three strands woven together become the fabric of Canadian social democracy.”

He adds, “Canada performed well during the COVID crisis because of our social contract, the bonds of community, the trust for each other and our institutions, our health care system in particular, with hospitals that cater to the medical needs of the collective, not the individual, and certainly not the private investor who views every hospital bed as if a rental property. The measure of wealth in a civilized nation is not the currency accumulated by the lucky few, but rather the strength and resonance of social relations and the bonds of reciprocity that connect all people in common purpose.”

The UK, honest British readers will acknowledge, is caught somewhere between the US and Canada. Those who serve us, in shops and supermarkets, are rarely unionised, and the children of the wealthy all go to public (i.e. private, fee-paying) schools. We have some notions of unity beyond the flag-waving ghosts of America’s example, but we cannot take that social glue for granted. What lies ahead will need solidarity across social and economic divides if we are to survive it without quite shocking levels of deprivation, and what we also clearly need is a willingness to discuss how we can adapt to both the threats and opportunities provided by this unprecedented collapse of almost our entire economic and social systems.

“Business as usual” is evidently dead in the water, although a government of lazy corporate whores will be unable to grasp that truth, because anything visionary is ruthlessly expunged from the current world of politics (Dominic Cummings, as an aside, thinks of himself as a visionary iconoclast, but is actually the worst sort of petulant, arrogant public schoolboy, driven primarily by his notion that he is the most brilliant man who ever lived, while almost everyone else in politics and the civil service — and society as a whole — is intellectually inferior).

The need for vision

But vision is what we desperately need: a change to a greener world, in which environmental concerns take precedence over capitalism’s obsessive profiteering, in which jobs must be found — or universal basic income made available — to millions of people who, until just a few months ago, were just about getting by in precarious service jobs in a deranged inter-connected world of global travel and tourism that was very evidently unsustainable, but which pretended to be impervious and inevitable.

COVID may well have brought to an end the environmentally unsustainable ascendancy of tourism as the planet’s biggest business — in London as much as beach resorts around the world — but in the UK the virus’s arrival has also exposed the unsustainable greed of the real estate market: the artificially sustained bubble of house prices, of unfettered private rents, of social housing destroyed for profit (a process once more rearing its ugly head), of insanely expensive towers of office blocks that no one wants anymore, and, as noted above, of business rents that need to take the same kind of hit that so many businesses and individuals have experienced over the last six months.

New opportunities can arise from the collapse of the rentier economy, but only with a change of leadership, as the government’s immediate response has been to propose a bonfire of the planning regulations, which, instead of addressing the changing realities and opportunities of the COVID world with vision, grubbily attempts to create abundant slum-making rip-off opportunities for sleazy Tory donors, and, presumably, fat cat MPs — the absolute worst possible outcome.

Can visionaries overcome the myopic venality of politicians, or will we be caught in the worst of all possible worlds, one in which Brexit meets COVID in a meltdown of economic destruction and misery? As Wade Davis reminds us, in 2016, five months after the UK’s Brexit suicide note, Americans chose “to prioritize their personal indignations, placing their own resentments above any concerns for the fate of the country and the world, as they rushed to elect a man whose only credential for the job was his willingness to give voice to their hatreds, validate their anger, and target their enemies, real or imagined.”

The above, of course, characterised Britain on June 23, 2016, but the UK repeated its mistakes just eight months ago, when our broken electoral system, a corrupt press and the widespread delusion of far too many of my fellow citizens gave the risible figure of Boris Johnson a significant working majority in Parliament. To bring him down requires some sort of concerted opposition, the likes of which we haven’t seen since, perhaps, the Poll Tax Riot of 1990, but at present it’s simply nowhere to be seen.

In America, meanwhile, as Wade Davis describes it, “One shudders to think of what it will mean to the world if Americans in November, knowing all that they do, elect to keep such a man in political power. But even should Trump be resoundingly defeated, it’s not at all clear that such a profoundly polarized nation will be able to find a way forward. For better or for worse, America has had its time.”

As, indeed, has the Brexit-addled, greedy, self-obsessed neoliberal UK under Boris Johnson.

With the certainty that this summer’s heatwave will eventually recede, autumn and winter look like being, collectively, a long night of the soul, in which we need illumination to be provided, illumination that, at present, appears to be as sorely lacking here as it is in the US.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or here for the US, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from eight years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

32 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    In my latest article, I draw on ‘The Unraveling of America’, an excellent article about COVID-19 and American exceptionalism by the anthropologist Wade Davis for Rolling Stone, looking at the crisis of leadership in the US when it comes to dealing with the unprecedented challenges for our economic future caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and comparing how similar failures of leadership also plague the UK.

    Davis paints an accurate picture of how US economic success in the Second World War gave way to both unfettered corporate greed and an atomised society through a focus on the individual, and as his observations so often chime with British hubris, I draw parallels with the UK. Both countries have amongst the highest death rates from COVID-19, and both appear to be spectacularly unable to rise to the challenge of creating a greener and fairer future from the COVID-ravaged ashes of neoliberalism.

    Where are the visionaries we need, I ask, and, if located, how will they be able spread their message?

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Deborah Emin wrote:

    Ah, if only leadership could save us. But it can’t. It is a mistake to believe in leaders. We see it all the time. Cause, kill the leader, the movement dies. But what makes anything worth getting up for is that shared set of values that have made the world healthier and happier. But don’t tell that to anyone. They’ll find the “leader” and kill her.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    😉 Deborah. Funny how that “shared set of values” – what I often call “civil society” – means that we can generally live safely, unlike so many places on earth. Even America’s gun culture can’t entirely take that away. But an ever-widening chasm between the rich and the poor will do it.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Deborah Emin wrote:

    Andy, I’ve been writing new books that try to show, via fiction, that there are women’s communities that don’t elect leaders but work in concert to take care of themselves. Generally they are land-based and often vegan. They feel a calling together. This is perhaps too far off the grid of how people consider a functional way of life. But it is most definitely anti-capitalist and gynocentric. This has been a long walk for me to get to. But it offers a perspective on the world that removes personality and identity and rather speaks to needs and how to meet them.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s very interesting, Deborah. I recall when Argentina’s economy collapsed in the ’90s and women set up factory co-operatives, and made decisions collectively. A visiting reporter asked about leaders, and one woman said they’d had enough of “charismatic leaders.” Your way may be the way to do it!

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Damien Morrison wrote:

    Trump and Boris are just the yellowheads .. It’s the puss underneath the infection that lies beneath .. It’s tragic to see how America is collapsing the USA have produced some of the most incredible people ever born produced incredible Art, culture, music .. Movements .. Moments .. But that now is an increasingly dissappearing America remember when we were children Andy for your generation and mine it was all about USA, USA, USA. It was a dreamland a promised land you look at all those great 20th century icons stars if you will who all arrived by boat to America penniless from Chaplin and Stan Laurel to Arnold Schwartzenegger America and it’s people gave the a dream life .. It seems the American dream is over a sad conflicted disease ravaged country with an imbecile at the head a dark twisted dangerous ignorant little man .. And their the most dangerous .. As for this country .. I’m over it .. As hard as this sounds last December we were given a chance to vote for somebody who could see the whole picture and could have changed things for the better .. But the dimwitted general public here voted an 80% majority to a bunch of criminals .. Hence I feel indifferent to this country and it’s people and am looking at ways to escape .. I would abandon the society here if I could … Where all of this is going is anybody guess … But brace yourselves

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, the journey of our adult lives seems to have taken a turn for the worse every time we thought it couldn’t actually get any worse, Damien – and especially over the last 12 years, since the 2008 crash. Austerity, Brexit and then COVID? I don’t blame you for wanting to escape.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Just thinking that that’s an ABC of disaster, Damien – austerity, Brexit, COVID. What’s next?

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Richard Matz wrote:

    Same old cycle of Boom-Bust-Barbarism-War-Repeat Ad Infinitum. Only this one is taking place on the precipice of catastrophic extinction level Anthropocene climate change. A key component of the maintenance of the current suicidal status quo is the manufactured consent of State narrative control. If you don’t understand the mechanics of this, you are likely to be asking the wrong questions – the answers to which are no threat whatsoever to prevailing elites.
    https://youtu.be/34LGPIXvU5M

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the link, Richard. The very basis of our work-rent-consumerism lifestyle is so shattered right now that I hope enough people are paying attention, but I fear that people can only bear so much reality. This heatwave really ought to be a wake-up call for the environment, though, and in the months to come the failures of the current system ought to be visible via ever-increasing numbers of the unemployed and all the individuals and families and businesses who can’t pay their rent. We really haven’t quite been here before …

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Mark Mason wrote:

    Andy, the problem is capitalism, not some vague academic nonsense labelled “institutional inertia.”

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Tom Pettinger wrote:

    There is one thing we don’t have, and that’s capitalism. I’m not a capitalist, maybe the opposite. But by anybody’s account we don’t have it. We’ve got a pernicious mix of corporatism and nepotism, mixed with a whole lot of secrecy.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for that analysis of the system we’re living under, Tom – “a pernicious mix of corporatism and nepotism, mixed with a whole lot of secrecy.” Excellent!

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Mark Mason wrote:

    All this is nonsense. this is why I am resorting to writing my own essay. I can’t find anyone with the courage to tell the truth.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Please do write your own article, Mark. We need many voices. I was trying to point out how the capitalist system appears incapable of adapting to a huge external challenge like COVID-19. I thought Wade Davis captured well how COVID has highlighted how broken the US is, and I found that his observations also chimed with how I see things in the UK.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Deborah Emin wrote, in response to 5, above:

    Andy, it’s truly not “my way.” But it is a way that has been here and ignored (thankfully in some ways) for quite some time.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    There’s a whole thread there about commune-based living, Deborah, and its successes and failures over many decades, that isn’t discussed much in general, but is worth thinking about and discussing. The establishment has such a narrow view about what is acceptable.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Deborah Emin wrote:

    Andy, as I finish writing the @ScagsSeries now and turn to the next novels (Born Loser, Born Lucky, Inc.) I am exploring how these communities offer the energy necessary to unmask and rip apart the networked corrupted oligarchs and their reliance on drug money, sex trafficking and weapons sales to maintain their wealth. It is hinted at in Scags at 45 but finds its expression in the next group of books. We all need help seeing how the world functions and what it is doing to us. Your work, Andy, is both instructive and inspirational. Thank you.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    I try my best, Deborah, and I always appreciate your supportive words. In general, I don’t think enough ethical discussions are even on society’s radar at all, which contributes to the general dumbing-down of thought, and even now, with COVID raging, there’s very little in the way of detailed and sustained analysis in the media of what it all means. Having a president who leads by tweeting is somehow appropriate for the amnesiac times we’re living in.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Deborah Emin wrote:

    Andy, the language manipulators have drained most words of their original intent. Yet people continue to have the need for moral balance in their lives. In part, your continuing work represents that, at least to me. Many hundreds more are daily doing the same. That spark has not been put out; it just doesn’t refer to itself in that way. I often ask myself how does Andy persist in the face of these horrors? I don’t know. But you do. That gives me hope. ❤️👏

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, Deborah.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Damien Morrison wrote:

    Andy I really do think people have been dumbed down they have .. Turn on the telly if you can Bere to endless endless dumb shows with nonentities .. Making cakes .. FFS .. Or shows gloating over people’s misfortune .. Banality of the highest order .. And pimping and prostituting the latest consumer shit rubbish of no worth we’ve been completely divided you have a deranged government of thieves and shysters plundering this country .. 70.000+ DEAD from this bug +another 200.000 dead though austerity .. AND PEOPLE SIT THERE SCREAMING AT A FEW POOR DESPERATE PEOPLE IN RUBBER DINGYS .. We as a country should be ashamed of ourselves there was a reshow of the program about live aid they show the infamous video acomompanyed by that song by the cars .. People were weeping .. Live aid showed how great we can be .. Those people of 1985 would be horrified horrified and enraged but how far we’ve all fallen … We know what needs to be done??

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Damien Morrison wrote:

    I don’t know part of me is starting to feel misanthropic we as a species are running as fast as we can towards the cliff edge and we’re dragging the environment the planet and every other living creature with us we’re running towards doom .. And we’re loving it .. It’s seems only 20% is awake wanting a different war free green world the rest .. To stupid greedy and selfish to care I don’t wanna feel like this but I’m starting to care less and less for the stupid greedy and warlike .. But their behaviour affects everything .. If we as a species were .. SANE .. We’d be living in a different world .. The fuse is lit now

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    I share your frustration, Damien. We have a broken political system, a broken mainstream media, and populations largely, it seems, incapable of sustained logical and coherent existential analysis of what life is and why our collective activity is so alarming. And there’s no easy solution to any of it, sadly.

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    Aleksey Penskiy wrote:

    The optimization and privatization of public hospitals has increased the number of deaths. It must be counted and shown to everyone.

  26. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your comments, Aleksey. That’s not an aspect of the COVID story that I had previously considered.

  27. Andy Worthington says...

    Idrees Amin Shah wrote:

    Andy .. Change of vision is impossible .. As Greed does not exist in leadership alone .. It exists in society .. I can say that it is exploitation of Greed in society by leadership .. This leads to such poisoning of social that it becomes new normal of life. I believe strongly that the divide you mentioned in your article and inequality you spoke of and consequential suffering will just pass on to society as normal life of common man .. As long as society allows this divide .. As long as they are ready to suffer .. We cannot get rid of inequality and nonsense .. It is society that should develop some vision .. And understand that their Greed has lead to collective suffering and allowed loot by few .. Bringing in Canada or may be New Zealand .. It seems to the extent people have realized that they cannot allow exploitation by few .. Whatever degree of balance we see in these two nations or may be elsewhere too (not in my knowledge) is because mass population might have realised that their prosperity lies in Equality and sensibility ..

  28. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Idrees, and thanks for your analysis of the human condition. I think you’re right that unprincipled leaders specifically exploit people’s weaknesses – their tendency towards selfishness, for example. But for things to change either the people themselves self-organise, or surely we need better leaders!

  29. Anna says...

    What a can of worms you opened, Andy. Where to even start to think about the causes, not to mention remedies? I witnessed first hand the hippy revolution without ever being part of it and second-hand (by radio) the student revolution in Paris in 1968 – the year I finished high school. As with so many positive movements it also – for generations to come – laid a foundation for the idea that we are entitled to everything, without being equally responsible for everything. I leave to professional sociologists the next generation’s pendulum swing towards organised career-mindedness by which they rebelled against their ‘softy’ parents.

    Entertainment industry is heavily infiltrated by military & politics, from Pentagon supported computer games teaching kids that indiscriminate killing of ‘others’ is OK and patriotic, to the CIA grooming movies such as Zero Dark Thirty. Then it discovered a new way to cut costs while appealing to a host of viewers: You & Me were declared at least as interesting as professional celebrities and worthy of appearing in ‘Reality Shows’. This has led countless people to think that putting your private life – as well as that of others you connect with on social media – into the public domain is perfectly OK. A ‘free’ road to celebrity which of course requires the ‘minor sacrifice’ of abandoning your privacy and provides a treasure trove of personal data to governments and corporations.

    Add to this the concentration of power in MSM and their increasingly primitive and commercial description and explanation of the world we live in, rather than desperately needed food for thought. And education increasingly moving from teaching high school and even university students to think independently, analize and understand any given problem before rushing to solve it, to ticking multiple choice boxes in standardised tests, in other words, to gambling.

    We now have a society in which we are kept entertained 7/24 at a mentally debilitating level, while nothing is hidden from the powerful, who as we all know have only their own interest at heart. And that is crucial, as whatever leaderless horizontal movements we create based on social media, they are practically in real time known to those in power and their – far from faultless – algorithms draw conclusions leading to plugging disinformation and worse, while policy/army/rioters are prepared to immediately disrupt, shoot, arrest etc.

    One of the present social phenomena I dread, are the ubiquitous mass protests. They’re less and less like before against wars in Vietnam or Iraq or for climate responsibility, but increasingly a desperate manifestation of powerless frustration with local wrongs, whether real or perceived, without necessarily having a clear focus for what to do about it except screaming. I fear them on the one hand because they indicate how ineffective our traditional ‘democratic’ means of influencing politics have become, on the other hand because they are so easily infiltrated and turned into the opposite result.

    This very day we witness two interesting examples : In Belarus mass discontent with its leader is supported by western powers, including EU & US and if its army rebels and deposes Lukashenko, that will probably also be tolerated – as it suits our interests. In Mali where similar discontent has been brewing for a long time and the army stepped in, there’s international condemnation as the present government suits our – particularly French/US – geo-political interests. I’m not in favour at all of military coups, but it seems they did not kill anyone and have popular support.

    So, we have a society intellectually drugged, addicted to mind-debilitating fun & games (including sunburn & disco mass tourism) and the ruthless powerful who exploit that for their own benefit. On the other hand society’s increasing poverty – now exacerbated by Covid – upturns the Bread & Games principle which so far kept our developed world quiet. Fun & games being limited by the virus is not well tolerated, while poverty is growing. Could that lead to some mass revolution that not only would not be militarily quashed but in addition would have a vision for a different society? I doubt it. And a popular uprising deprived of its surprise element has little chance of success.

    I have witnessed wonderful bottom-up developments in Congo, under Mobutu, when up country there was literally no government left, people had not received salaries for several years, even post offices in big cities had been closed down. In one village the unpaid school teacher had abandoned his job to cultivate his land in order to feed his family. So the parents offered to cultivate his land for him and in return he taught their kids. But those are small scale initiatives which work on a local level, in a village or a city’s neighbourhood. They can be a great inspiration and solve many urgent local problems but in the long run you do need political changes for the whole country and that includes leaders. Motivated, intelligent and honest ones and they do still exist. It’s up to us to not only elect them and protect them from slander and stabs in the back, but also to hold them accountable. No one is perfect.

    We’re all disgusted by politics but is there any other viable option to run countries bigger than San Marino? Maybe we are too lazy and complacent when we do get a reasonable government? Satisfied with our electoral success, we go back to minding our own business and let our preferred politician get away with forfeiting whatever chances he/she had/has for change for the better. Maybe we should demonstrate more when there is a reasonable government, to remind it of its duties & promises and not just when there’s a desperately bad one which is bound not to listen anyway? Seems to me that a crucial step – everywhere – would be to tax billionaires and eliminate tax havens & trade deals which give corporations more power than national governments (curbing white collar corruption), in some countries also change crooked election systems. Not to mention getting rid of a few mega-countries’ right to veto in UN Security Council.

    If Jeremy Corbyn/Bernie Sanders had been elected, could they have achieved their goals without massive pressure from us? Without us boycotting shady banks (there are ‘fair trade’ banks in many countries, where your savings are not invested in arms, fossil fuels, etc), without us boycotting complacent media, flooding their editors with letters, without us holding educational facilities and the ministry which controls them to account by carefully monitoring what our children are being taught? Maybe these are topics where small-scale group activities can have an impact? School by school, then a constituency, finally the country? Without a critical but constructively thinking population, how can the powerful be held to account? Local activities such as your Lewisham social housing protests may seem unsuccessful at face value, but at the very least they slow down a nefarious trend before it becomes irreversable. And any successful one will motivate others to fight too.

    Why don’t we, civil societies, protest massively as we see how the development of Covid vaccines becomes yet another way for farmaceutical companies and other billionaires to enrich themselves with tax payer money, a rat race among ambitious scientists, farmaceutical investors and nationalistic governments? Which in addition might cut corners and produce vaccines which cause ‘collateral’ disasters? How many of us follow what the EU parliamentarians (or even our national ones) whom we elected are doing, what they support or boycot if anything at all – as there seem to be many who see this merely as a source of considerable income and free trips between home & Brussels with its many career opportunities? I admit I don’t … In the US if more Bernie supporters had bothered to go and actually vote and keep him in the race as long as possible in spite of Obama and NDC boycotting him, and would have kept publicly demonstrating for his ideas (virtually, hindered by Covid), he might have had more clout to push for his agenda (or platform 🙂 ) like medical care for all. But once he got outmanoeuvered by the DNC and had suspended (not ended !) his campaign, voters abandoned him when he still was on the ballot.

    How do we get a complacent society which feels entitled but not responsible, to climb out of that self-absorbed lethargy? Carrot or stick? How do we get the hundreds of thousands who do demonstrate in the streets, to coalesce into a – yes, political – power? Inevitably with leaders, but ones with some sense of responsibility? And I haven’t even started on those who have not lost their Fun & Games, because they never had any to start with and whose lives always were about bare survival rather than some fancy ‘life style’…

    But then again, a mere 30 years ago communism also seemed to be indestructable, yet it quite peacefully imploded, so there’s hope 🙂 That happened when all groups (farmers, blue collar workers, students, intellectuals) stopped fighting each other and formed one front. Could that example provide a key?

  30. Andy Worthington says...

    I’m glad my amplification of – and analysis of – Wade Davis’s article was so thought-provoking, Anna. It has been quite a journey the last few months, and I’m really not sure where we stand now. Elements of normal life are everywhere here in the UK, and yet the normal hectic economic activities are down massively, jeopardising the future of almost everything except internet-based business (whether mail order or entertainment), office workers still don’t want to go back to their offices, live culture is still in deep freeze, and a tsunami of unemployment and evictions for rent arrears looks to be forthcoming in the autumn. Maybe that will be the spark for a movement for change on a scale that we’ve not seen before, but I wouldn’t bet on it. That said, I wouldn’t bet against it either. If hundreds of thousands of people are made homeless, because private landlords are so self-obsessed, perhaps the state might have to intervene to prevent social unrest. But we still face colossal unemployment problems that no one knows how to address, apart from suggestions that, yes, it really might finally be time for a universal basic income.

    I was interested that you began by reflecting on how the social upheaval of the ’60s and ’70s promoted “the idea that we are entitled to everything, without being equally responsible for everything”, as that chimes with my assessment that the “me me me” generation began then, splitting from the hippies’ genuinely revolutionary political side, and gradually taking over almost the whole of western society, and everywhere else in the world that a middle class develops, so that now hundreds of millions of people worldwide genuinely think that life revolves solely around them, and their urges, “because”, as L’Oreal so sickeningly puts it, “you’re worth it.”

    I suppose I think, having been so disappointed for so long by people’s inability to be motivated politically in significant enough numbers to change anything, that the biggest hope for change is in the climate movement, and not for any ethereal reasons, but because climate collapse is so imminent that we aren’t going to be able to avoid it. The main problem for revolutionaries now is that we have to persuade humanity to accept that we’ve screwed up everything so badly that the time of “peak human” has been reached, and we desperately need to become more humble, or, to be blunt, we won’t survive.

    As George Monbiot said many years ago, this is fundamentally the first protest movement calling for less rather than more. We have to accept that we’ve become too clever for our own good; or rather, that we’re not as clever as we think we are, and we have to accept that we need to change our extraordinarily privileged and comfortable lifestyles because otherwise they will kill us.

    But how hard is that when wealthy retired people across the West have become seething masses of resentment, endlessly complaining and voting for Trump and Brexit and other far-right, racist politicians, when they are actually amongst the most privileged human beings to have ever walked the earth, each one of them enjoying a lifestyle that, through most of history, would only have been reserved for the faithful servants of tyrants. Progress and the spread of wealth has, amazingly, also created the most colossal stupidity and myopia imaginable!

  31. Anna says...

    Quite, and your last remark fits perfectly with an interview with Uruguay’s former president Mujica (among other left-wing Latin American presidents such as Ivo Morales): that the millions lifted out of poverty became consumers not citizens (or something similar) and therefore want more and more all the time.
    https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/specialseries/2020/01/latin-america-giant-turmoil-200121113308291.html

    On a different subject, there’s a free on-line Iraqi film festival in London, worth watching so far. Every evening at 18:30 GMT but today afterwards they repeated yesterday’s film – the first 30 min of which are interesting as a document of Baghdad in 2004. It’s about the problems encountered by a young Iraqi when he tries to shoot a film, with the ubiquitous sound of green army helicopters hovering in the air and occasionally bombing or shooting. Same huge green ‘beetles’ as in Afghanistan. Always at least two of them together. But also features and lovely short about a solitary woman living in marshlands with her cows:
    https://iiffestival.com/live/

    And a documentary about the 1953 MI6-CIA coup against Mossadegh. I think you can watch it in England via internet by buying a ticket from a cinema on a list, at least you could a few days ago.
    Not possible yet in Poland unfortunately:
    https://coup53.com/https://www.screendaily.com/reviews/coup-53-london-review/5143718.article

  32. Andy Worthington says...

    Interesting. President Mujica’s comments strike to the heart of our entitlement culture, Anna – not of the rich, who have always felt superior to everyone else, but of the poor. Our culture is littered with people who came from great poverty but remain scarred by those experiences, and cannot move beyond them. When they get money, they behave like spoiled children, rather than recognising that revelling in personal material comfort is essentially an exercise in selfishness. We lack both the religious leadership to challenge this, or, in general, the socialist perspective to challenge it, enabling people to recognise that the common good is more significant than personal self-gratification, and this has been deliberately fostered since the 1980s, as the gulf between the rich and the poor has expanded, and continues to expand.

    Thanks for the film links. I don’t know if it’s accessible to you, but the BBC’s ‘Once Upon a Time in Iraq’ series is devastatingly powerful: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000kxws/episodes/player

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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