Coronavirus and the spectre of the closed network
14th March 2020
How will the world be reshaped by coronavirus? Answers to this question have almost become a genre unto themselves. Such speculation — even if it is just speculation — can be valuable, and not just insofar as it helps us to grapple with the particular threat facing us. Moments of unexpected shock like this one, when drastic change suddenly seems possible, can shake us out of our engrained ways of thinking and refocus our attention on the forces at play in our lives.
To be sure, the arrival of a global pandemic has not escaped the immense gravitational force of familiar arguments. Many conservative commentators have taken it as confirmation of long-held suspicions over globalisation: a pathogen bred in unhygienic Chinese animal markets seems an obvious reminder that bad things as well as good can spread through porous borders. There is, moreover, nothing quite like the prospect of collapsing supply chains to stir vague longings for autarchy. “If Britain were ever isolated from the rest of the world,” a columnist in the UK’s Telegraph opines, “It would need healthy farms.”
No more surprising have been the efforts to redirect discussion of the virus towards issues of prejudice and discrimination. The most cartoonish illustration of this remains the statement of the World Health Organisation director general that “The greatest enemy we face is not the virus itself; it’s the stigma that turns us against each other.”
Neither of these responses are entirely without merit, of course, but they are illustrative of the overly simplistic way we have come to think about the interconnected world in which we live. In the western democracies, a decade of political trench warfare over issues of national sovereignty, immigration and the domestic consequences of a globalised economy has led us to reduce the complex reality of networks and connectivity to questions about openness.
How should we weight the benefits of mobility and change versus those of stability? How flexible should our culture be? What responsibilities do we have towards the rest of the world? Should we be “somewheres” or “anywheres”? These are important questions, but they have absorbed our attention to the extent that we have not kept track of the conditions which allowed them to be posed in the first place. They seem to assume that a capacity for an ever-increasing interconnectedness is like an escalator towards an ever more open and fluid world; our decision is merely whether or not we should step onto it.
All the while, however, a different story has been emerging under our noses. Those very debates about the merits of openness have been facilitated by a boom of network technology, and this has itself brought about new kinds and degrees of fragmentation and mistrust. The division fuelled by social media, the cultural isolation manifest in personalised algorithms, the capture of audiences through disinformation and propaganda — these are only the most visible symptoms of that paradox.
Since the 1980s, the emergence of the so-called knowledge economy — where patents and other intellectual property are increasingly reliant on the management and analysis of vast seas of information, made available through connectivity — has exacerbated the social, cultural and economic decoupling of wealthy urban centres from resentful heartlands. As the economist Paul Krugman noted in a recent interview, the internet has made it possible for firms “to actually separate the low value activities from the high value activities, so that your back office operations can be some place where land is cheap and wages are low, but you can keep your corporate headquarters and your high-level technical staff in lower Manhattan.”
The coronavirus’ disruption of our habitual social and economic interactions has led to a dawning realisation that we have already adopted a suite of technologies with immense potential for social fragmentation. In The Atlantic, Ian Bogost points out that the infrastructure already exists for a privileged section of society to retreat into a virtual enclave of remote work, shopping, education and entertainment. Quarantine, he writes, “is just a raw, surprising name for the condition that computer technologies have brought about over the last two decades: making almost everything possible from the quiet isolation of a desk or chair illuminated by an internet-connected laptop or tablet.”
Similarly, much of the cosmopolitanism that exists in our societies today — and which is also centred in the hubs of the knowledge economy — has stemmed from the incentives for migration produced by an abundance of service sector jobs. These, too, could be made redundant by a greater leveraging of connectivity. As Ed Conway recently speculated in the London Times, the coronavirus shock could help to stimulate “a new model of globalization,” based on technologies such as 3D printing, artificial intelligence and robotics. This would allow labour and resources from around the world to be coordinated more efficiently, thereby reducing the unreliability which comes from actual people and things having to be in certain places at certain times. Conway asks us to imagine “hotel rooms in London being cleaned by robots controlled by cleaners in Poland, or lawns in Texas mowed by robots steered by gardeners in Mexico.”
Now, I have no idea whether coronavirus will launch a fourth industrial revolution, or hasten our evolution into housebound recluses sustained by Netflix, Amazon and telecommuting software. My point is this: connectivity does not exist on a simple scale of more and less, and nor does it axiomatically entail a high degree of openness. Rather, connectivity can come in many forms, and the world can continue to become more densely interconnected without any concomitant increase in the freedom or willingness to interact.
The implications of this reality do not favour communitarian “somewheres” any more than the liberal “anywheres,” to return to our troublesome dichotomy. For it means that we can have all the alienating effects of connectivity with none of the benefits. One can easily imagine an expansive network capable of harvesting huge amounts of information, and of coordinating vast resources, but where the majority of people who provide the inputs remain in many respects isolated, with limited ability to use the network for their own ends. They would be “connected,” but as mere nodes, not as agents. The obvious precedent here is China, where technology has enabled a previously unimaginable degree of surveillance and social control, including control over the circulation of information.
We can, of course, still argue about whether we should try to bring about a more cosmopolitan world. But the possibilities raised by coronavirus should, at the very least, drive home the realisation that networks cannot simply be presumed to facilitate the politics of openness. G.W.F Hegel famously said that the owl of Minerva takes flight at dusk, and we have been proving him correct by arguing over a world on which the sun is already setting.
The politics of this crisis will be grim. We should prepare now.
22nd March 2020
Last weekend, which now feels like a lifetime ago, I nervously attended what will probably be my last social gathering for several months. Despite a general mood of uneasiness, at least one of my friends was hoping that there would be a silver lining to the looming Covid-19 epidemic. Did I not think, he asked, that confronting this challenge together might finally instil some solidarity in our society?
I heard similar sentiments being expressed throughout last week. In a BBC Newsnight interview, the Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggested that “We are going to come through this… with a much stronger commitment to helping others,” adding that it was “probably the lesson we needed as a country.” Some of those rushing to join community aid groups have expressed similar optimism. Even on social media, the shared experience of confinement has given rise to something of an upbeat communal spirit.
Solidarity is obviously welcome, and action to help the vulnerable is more welcome still. I am as hopeful as anyone else that little platoons will play their part in this emergency. But we should not fool ourselves about what lies ahead. Though many commentators have been drawing parallels to the Second World War, the emerging consensus among economists is that the shock now underway will dwarf that of the early 1940s. The blow to demand dealt by social distancing measures points towards a spiral of business contraction and redundancies simply unprecedented in modern history. The forecasts flying around in recent days vary considerably, and are of limited use given how quickly the situation is developing. But I have yet to see any evidence that the swiftly approaching economic crisis will not be brutal — and that is before we consider the effects of the financial crisis unfolding alongside it.
This means that our efforts as individuals and communities ultimately pale by comparison to the responsibility which now rests on the state. Only the state can manage the gargantuan tasks of coordinating healthcare, propping up collapsing industries, and mitigating the financial damage in the population at large. As the multi-hundred billion pound measures announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak last week attest, we are undergoing a transformation of the government’s role in the economy on a scale not seen in living memory. And we are only at the beginning.
What is more, it’s becoming apparent that the flag around which many of us have been rallying in recent weeks — the necessity of aggressive containment measures to ease the stress on our healthcare system — will only take us so far. At the moment, our priority is to slow the virus’ spread by reducing interpersonal contact as much as possible. But if, as is widely suspected, any attempt to return to normality will only cause infections to rise again, then there will be truly horrendous trade-offs between ongoing economic damage and the likely deaths resulting from interaction. (The dimensions of that dilemma may become clearer in the coming days, as the Chinese authorities begin to relax their brutal lockdown of Wuhan province).
All of this points to inevitable and legitimate political conflict in the coming months and years. The fissures which have threatened to emerge following each of Sunak’s announcements last week — between homeowners and renters, between businesses and workers, between employees and the self-employed — are just a glimpse of what lies ahead.
As the state rapidly expands into a Leviathan, acting as insurer of last resort for much of the population, it will assume responsibility for the survival prospects not only of thousands of individuals at risk of illness, but of entire sectors of the economy. There may be hopes of a swift “bounce-back” recovery, if the government’s attempts to flood the economy with borrowed and printed cash manage to shore-up demand, but we should not delude ourselves that we can somehow just resume where we left off. Countless businesses and careers that entered this crisis as perfectly viable will needed ongoing targeted support to survive, and the state will need to decide which are most worthy of that support.
In other words, whatever the settlement that emerges from a prolonged period of extraordinary state intervention, there are bound to be winners and losers. As the aftermath of the 2007–08 financial crisis taught us, a perception that bailouts have been distributed unfairly will lead to toxic resentments. A deep source of political turmoil during the past decade has been the grievances of those who feel that opportunities and influence are not being fairly distributed. The coming recession has every likelihood of compounding these tensions. As a recent report by the Resolution Foundation pointed out, the sectors being hardest hit by the downturn are disproportionately staffed by those with low incomes, with little or no savings, and without the option to work from home. One can already imagine a scenario in which handouts to firms deemed too big or strategically important to fail coincide with a sense of powerlessness among a burgeoning population of underemployed workers and debt-laden small businesses.
There is no doubt that in the short term, our efforts must be directed toward mitigating a public health emergency which, sadly, has yet to reach its peak. I accept that this will entail seeking political conciliation wherever possible, so as to focus on the challenge at hand.
In the medium-term, however, we need to think about what solidarity really means in these circumstances. It should, surely, involve an acknowledgement that the careful mediation of political disputes will be essential to riding this crisis out. That will require, above all, a framework in which competing interests can make their claims without the resulting conflicts becoming too incendiary.
Such a framework precisely what our political culture has already, in recent years, shown itself to be lacking. In a strange throwback to the “grand bargains” that characterised mid-20th century politics, the government has promised to consult with representatives of business and the unions going forward. But trade unions today represent barely a fifth of the workforce, with memberships skewed towards older, well-paid public sector workers. Like many other advanced economies, modern Britain is a patchwork of groups whose economic interests appear to align, but which lack the social cohesion necessary to realise and articulate those interests. They exist only as statistical entities.
It is crucial, therefore, that we think about the role of institutions in channeling some of the solidarity that is generated by this crisis towards conflict resolution. This should be an opportunity for the Labour Party to address the problem of who in modern Britain is most in need of its representation, and to provide constructive opposition to the government on that basis. It should be an opportunity for the media to break out of last decade’s culture wars and identify on whose behalf the government should be held to account. We will also need new institutions to represent those socially dispersed interests who will struggle to be heard in the halls of power during a new era of corporatism. Could community aid groups, or the professional networks which are already springing-up among the unemployed, gradually morph into such bodies?
Admittedly it seems perverse to talk about the necessity of conflict at a time like this. Yet if we suppress the political fallout from this crisis, we will only be storing-up demons for later.
Ancient liberties, novel dangers
28th March 2020
Until very recently, the British political landscape was drearily familiar: each new argument about Brexit, the dangers of populism, or the excesses of cultural liberalism seemed identical to the last. It has taken an act of nature to force us out of that rut, but here we are. Thanks to the Covid-19 outbreak, the nation not only faces a public health emergency, but also an unprecedented suspension of civil liberties, as parliament this week granted the government powers to disperse public gatherings and confine people to their homes.
Now we are seeing politics in a new light. On the left, many who were in the habit of portraying Boris Johnson as a budding authoritarian dictator found themselves pleading for the state-enforced lockdown which has now arrived. It is on the right that opinion has been divided. Though some have relished the state flexing its muscles during a crisis, it has equally been some of the nation’s most conservative voices that have expressed reservations about the infringement of civil liberties.
“End of freedom,” bellowed the front page of The Daily Telegraph on Tuesday morning. Thatcher biographer Charles Moore conceded that “it would be bold” to say the lockdown was wrong, but warned of a herd-like population becoming “blindly dependent on rigid orders.” Meanwhile, Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens, who has been loudly insisting that the government response is disproportionate to the threat posed by the virus, declared the emergency powers “a frightening series of restrictions on ancient liberties.”
This is a useful reminder that, on the subject of personal freedom, there are important crosscurrents between liberals and conservatives. Whereas liberals are more inclined to say you should be able to do as you like, they are also more comfortable with the state protecting its citizens from harm. Even Daniel Hannan, the closest thing modern Britain has to a 19th-century Whig, has supported the right of government to restrict liberties on the grounds that risk of infection is, in the language of neoclassical economics, an externality we impose on one another.
British conservatism, on the other hand, though traditionally keen on law and order, also contains a deep strain of suspicion with respect to the state meddling in civil society. There are various uncharitable explanations for this instinct. Conservatism has historically been concerned with protecting the wealth and status of certain elites. Since the 1980s, it has additionally been susceptible to libertarian dogma about free markets. More simply, the conservative worldview tends to attract a certain kind of grumpy individualist who resents the bureaucracy of modern society (even when it is trying to protect him from a plague).
In its purest Burkean form, however, the conservative case for liberty rests on the much richer philosophical grounds of the trans-generational contract. Given what we know about the fallibility of human judgment, and about the difficulty of clawing back rights once they have been lost, we should conclude that the freedoms which previous generations have struggled for are not ours to give away at a moment’s notice, but to guard jealously for those who come after us. Hence the emphasis on “ancient liberties,” and on pausing for thought especially during an emergency.
I take this argument seriously, regardless of whether it is actually what motivates conservatives today. I take it far more seriously than the libertarian case against an overbearing state, which rests on a dubious view of human beings as autonomous contract-making individuals, and on unrealistic injunctions against coercion. The Burkean paradigm emphatically does not value freedom in and of itself. Rather, it posits that the cumulative experience of generations has established the value of particular freedoms within the context of a particular society.
Even if, like myself, you think it was correct for the government to enforce the lockdown, I think we should still adopt the spirit of mild paranoia which animates the “ancient liberties” outlook. We should be alert to the possibility that certain emergency measures might outlive the emergency in one form or another. We should push back against authorities who seem to be enjoying their new powers too much. And we should think about how this experience of trading freedom for safety might influence expectations in the long term.
Yet these same considerations also point to a major weakness of thinking about civil liberties in primarily historical terms. Namely, it can lead us to fixate on traditional rights and customs, and consequently, to overlook new kinds of threat — a problem aptly illustrated by those who seem to think the worst part of the lockdown is that British people can’t go to the pub.
I don’t think the real danger of our present situation has much to do with the forced closure of businesses, or with physical confinement to our households. The damage these measures are inflicting on our economy, and the immense financial burden the state is assuming as a consequence, make it irrational for even the most power-crazed despot to maintain them longer than necessary. In any case, I get the impression the public is fully aware that these are emergency precautions, and won’t take kindly to prolonged interference in such matters.
Rather, it seems to me the threat is most acute with respect to the state’s technological capacity. As I mentioned in a recent post, there is a good chance that the Covid-19 crisis will prompt various industries to develop technologies which allow them to do more remotely. We should expect a similar trajectory in terms of state power. The administrative challenge of responding to the epidemic, and of facilitating economic and bureaucratic activity during the lockdown, will surely incentivise the state to strengthen and centralise its digital resources. It would, in the process, become more adept at collecting, managing, and utilising information about its citizens, while learning new ways of enacting its most intrusive powers.
Admittedly the British government, which does not even have an emergency messaging system for contacting citizens on their mobiles, does not yet seem very threatening in this respect. But elsewhere there has been plenty of evidence that new techniques of surveillance and control are being forged in response to the crisis (I recommend reading this piece by Jeremy Cliffe in The New Statesman), and we could yet see similar developments here, especially if expanding digital infrastructures turns out to be a matter of economic competitiveness.
It may well be, of course, that we want our government to take some of these steps if it helps us weather the current storm. But that is precisely where the risk lies. If we think it necessary to empower the state in new ways, we need to devise new forms of oversight and accountability. To that end, thinking about our freedoms as keepsakes from the past is of limited use; we also need to think imaginatively about how they can be extended into the future.
This is not the solidarity you were longing for
14th April 2020
There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about Britain’s longing to rediscover a tangible national identity. The peoples of this island, it was often suggested, missed a sense of solidarity, security and belonging. Both sides in the acrimonious Brexit struggle, or at least elements on both sides, agreed that this deficit had something to do with Britain’s rejection of the EU; the disagreement was over its root causes and how it should be addressed.
The Covid-19 crisis has ended that argument by radically changing the premises. It is clear that this threat will be addressed at the level of the nation state, and so the near unanimous call is for the British people to pull together and support one another through whatever may lie ahead. Solidarity no longer seems a vague ideal, but an immediate necessity.
The Queen’s recent broadcast, in which she recalled the hardships the nation faced in 1940, gave definitive expression to a narrative which has been building for several weeks. It is the same narrative Boris Johnson invoked in his Easter Sunday address, an extended paean to the National Health Service and the sacrifices Britain was making to protect it by observing social distancing (“the British public,” he said, had “formed a human shield around the country’s greatest national asset”).
Britons are being told to think of collective moral fortitude as the hallmark of their history and institutions, and to show themselves worthy of that history by demonstrating loyalty and sacrifice. The parallels to the “Blitz spirit” of the Second World War have been unending, invoked by broadsheet columns and tabloid headlines, by religious leaders and talk-show hosts, by manufacturers and, of course, by a government that has rapidly accrued new powers and responsibilities to itself. The wartime analogy has felt natural in large part because the NHS, which was already the nation’s most sacrosanct institution, is a common possession in need of defence. (Hence “protect the NHS” has increasingly assumed logical and moral priority over “save lives”).
It has been fascinating to see the brute force of emergency bend the parameters of moral discourse in this way. It has equally been very moving to see the public rise to the challenge. I could mention countless examples, but a handwritten sign in a tailor’s window saying “Free for NHS workers” struck me as especially poignant for some reason.
But many commentators have been unable to resist a further suggestion: that the solidarity fostered by this crisis has, like some god-sent miracle, provided the solution to our earlier troubles. Writing in the Observer recently, Alan Rusbridger pointed to the prestige of the BBC and NHS as evidence that “we’re rediscovering utopian hopes of a connected world.” The Financial Times’ Sebastian Payne has found in our “national sense of togetherness” the belated realisation of David Cameron’s “big society.” Maurice Glasman of Blue Labour, meanwhile, points to the paradox that “community has been rediscovered through enforced social isolation,” glimpsing therein the seeds of “a renewed social democracy.”
Much as I understand the temptation to find in this tragedy some lasting redemption, I remain sceptical. Societies often pull together at moments of emergency because people are both scared and focused on an immediate challenge. As the wartime analogies tacitly recognise, such solidarity is more often a product of resignation, or the desire to make the best of a bad situation, than the sign of a profound conversion. If the goal which unites us is a return to normality, then we are seeking to rid ourselves of the very source of our togetherness.
Could we not try to maintain some of the amity awakened by this crisis? I hope so, but that is not as easy as it sounds. As I wrote some weeks ago, the social and economic fallout of containing Covid-19 will, in the medium term, lead to severe and inescapable political conflicts (a point which, in fairness, Glasman acknowledges). Resolving these conflicts by ensuring that all parties are heard, and by reaching compromises that are bound to leave many unhappy, will require a very different notion of solidarity to the one we are celebrating now.
More immediately, we should be wary of the pressures we are unleashing. Solidarity is not, after all, just a matter of goodwill and camaraderie. It also allows us to demand certain obligations from one another, and to present those obligations as a test of loyalty. In the context of an emergency, this can be a slippery slope.
Sebastian Payne demonstrates one risk when, in the piece mentioned above, he contrasts the virtuous majority to those who have engaged in “selfish acts like stockpiling.” This echoes the trend of vigilante shaming in recent weeks, whereby self-appointed coronavirus cops have tried to enforce the government’s social distancing rules by publically calling-out deviants, often accusing them of disloyalty.
Put aside the fact that, in most cases, such claims about traitors in our midst have proven to be flimsy. If it becomes acceptable to shame people not because their actions risk harm to others, but because they are transgressing against solidarity (a subtle but important distinction), we are potentially hampering our ability to handle problems we will be confronted with later. There may come a time when, for poorer people confined to cramped homes especially, the lockdown simply becomes unbearable. There probably will come a time when we have to make difficult decisions about which containment measures to relax and when. In these scenarios, it will not be helpful if any challenge to social distancing can be countered with claims of weakness or betrayal.
There are similar risks with respect to the incentives we are creating for our leaders. As the rising approval ratings of governments around the world suggest, there are significant political dividends to be had from emergency solidarity. But the steps that leaders take to secure those rewards will define the limits of political possibility for years to come. The centralisation of power, bound up with the paternalistic role the state has claimed for itself, will not be easily undone. Our politicians’ Faustian pact with the health service, whereby unconditional praise takes the place of an honest conversation about the taxation it requires, has deepened further.
Before this crisis, I was receptive to the idea that more solidarity would be a good thing for Britain, and I still am. None of the above is intended as an argument against solidarity as such, and nor am I predicting that all of the negative possibilities I have discussed will appear.
I am just suggesting that we should remain aware of the contingencies of our situation. Our exceptional circumstances mean that the solidarity we see now is not what we were hoping for in the past, and it is not what we will need in the future. And while I don’t doubt that appeals to loyalty and sacrifice have been necessary, it’s worth trying to think through the moral and political pressures this may generate. For any ideal which is summoned into a messy reality will have unintended consequences.