It seems an age ago now, but from the end of March and through to May, many people up and down the country publicly offered a weekly ovation to the care staff and key workers who sustained the country as the coronavirus first hit the UK.
A fresh perspective appeared in outline – which enjoyed considerable currency over that period – that we were finally sighted as to who really mattered in our society, in contrast to those who ceaselessly presented themselves as necessary and important.
The celebrity culture in which we found ourselves mired and the intense focus on the grotesquely wealthy to which we had become acclimatised seemed challenged by this new view of the world, which celebrated instead the contribution of the women and men who: tended our patients; cared for people in care homes and their homes; drove lorries to keep the vital supply chains connected (despite the outbreak of panicky hoarding that accompanied our first national crisis since the 1940s); brought our groceries and other vital things to our doors; stocked the shelves and staffed the tills at supermarkets; and kept the corner shops open and ready to supply what we needed.
But that was then, and this is now. And, for anyone who thought these changes presaged a seismic shift in society, the news this week shows that all the talk of a Great Reset was not actually about the crafting of a different way of looking at – and being in – the world. Instead, we find it signifies a simple return to close to where we were back in March.
Two news stories this week underscore this fact. First, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announces a public sector pay freeze (although acute political sensitivities have led Sunak at present to exclude NHS staff from this constraint). As the BBC reported online,
The chancellor is looking for ways to bolster public finances after a huge rise in spending to fight coronavirus. Those affected include key workers lauded for their service during the pandemic, such as the police, teachers, armed forces and civil servants.
The immediate reaction has been to amplify the differences between public sector and private sector employment, with arguments marshalled that the former has been less adversely affected in the course of the pandemic in respect to furlough and redundancy. And then the capitalist apologists come slouching into view with negative observations about the way in which the public sector can be seen at this time to benefit from both better terms and conditions and (somewhat unexpectedly) higher rates of pay:
In 2019 if you had worked in the public sector you would have been on average 7% better off than if you had worked in the private sector. That premium was higher for lower-skilled workers than for higher: employees in lower-skilled occupations earned on average £13.62 an hour in the public sector and only £11.24 in the private sector. This goes against the accepted wisdom in the UK.
As ever in our socio-economic context, the initial systemic response to anything that challenges its continuing dominance is to drive wedges between groups of people, in this case between public and private sector employees. A contrary interpretation to these circumstances would be that, rather than seeking to drag the former down to the level of the latter, we should be working collectively to drag the latter up to the level of the former.
It is worth also making a simple structural observation in respect to these supposed tensions between public and private sectors. The latter labours under a managerial imperative that demands more growth and greater profit, in order to satisfy the interwoven needs of the overall economy, where private shareholders sit alongside pension funds, all demanding a ratcheting up of their investment (notwithstanding the barely developed or impactful notion of activist shareholders). In the current climate crisis, it is also the case that the desirability of continued growth is increasingly moot.
The second story this week shows that the Chancellor has opted to double down on his efforts to keep the system afloat by draining the pockets of the poor, insofar as it is reported that he is ‘…set to cancel a proposed five per cent rise in the national living wage for two million workers, amid fears it could put firms out of business. Hourly rates were due to rise from £8.72 to £9.21 – in April, but the chancellor is set to cancel those plans amid fears over the impact it will have on businesses already struggling.’
Who bears the brunt?
Surely, some might ask, Sunak has to do something to balance the books? We continue to face a global medical crisis that demands that government intervenes to protect people and keep our society afloat. Indeed. But he is making a political choice as to where this austerity will fall. After all, we remain an economy where large corporations – including those who have benefited massively from circumstances over the past nine months – are largely allowed by our political leaders to wriggle through the system that is meant to ensure that they make a reasonable contribution to our collective coffers, as evidenced here:
Amazon’s key UK business paid just 3% more tax last year when profits rose by more than a third as the online retailer benefited from the switch to home shopping. Amazon said its tax bill had been offset by government incentives related to its investment in infrastructure as it caters to soaring demand for home shopping and IT services in the UK.
Note there that government incentives – presumably the prompts to business offered through the Treasury under Sunak’s stewardship – is supporting this octopus-like company that, counter to the precepts of traditional capitalist economic thought, nurses an ambition for complete monopoly. And, while home carers and delivery drivers bear the brunt of the economic crisis arising from the management of the pandemic crisis, across the Atlantic we discover,
Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, who was already the world’s richest person, has benefited most from the pandemic and subsequent global lockdowns. His personal fortune, as estimated by Forbes magazine, has risen by $73.2bn since the start of the crisis to a record $186.2bn.
So what was the clapping all about, then? It grew out of a (relatively) spontaneous social movement, of course, but was speedily and opportunistically assimilated by politicians and captains of industry as part of the myth under which we all of us labour, namely that “we’re all in this together”. (This is one of key six myths that John Higgins and I explore in the book that will be published next year, entitled, Leadership unravelled: The faulty thinking behind modern management.)
Even in the face of a deadly disease, it is a struggle to maintain the fiction that we’re in it together, particularly when you consider, as Mark O’Connell demonstrates in his book on conspiracy thinking, that the hyper-rich caste of which Bezos is part look after themselves before for one moment considering others and their welfare. The right-libertarianism of Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and the first outside investor in Facebook, manifests itself in a “preppers” desire to buy up secluded real estate in New Zealand to insulate himself from the collapse of the very system of which he is a major architect.
Our Caravaggio Moment
All of which is a solemn reminder of two things. First, despite the ebullience about renaissance and supposedly unassailable positive shifts arising out of the pandemic crisis, we remain in a Caravaggio Moment, where light and shadow inevitably coexist. The picture emerges from the chiaroscuro, where bright points – illuminated faces or hands – are counterpoised with blocks of impenetrable black shadow. In the midst of crisis, the focus was too much on the rich light in the picture, as opposed to the negative elements that sat alongside it.
Similarly, whilst there was a desire to cast illumination into the shadow, the better to expose what was happening there, it was accompanied by a failure to acknowledge that others might prefer to snuff out the brightness that we relished as an artefact of the way in which society responded to the crisis. Hence, there was a tacit assumption that the clapping meant something, going forward, in terms of how we thought about the world and our respective places in it. Unfortunately, as this post depressingly spells out, itchy fingers are flicking the switches to extinguish that light.
Second, linking with this observation, we must recognise that things that we value must be fought for and their preservation is a responsibility that lies with us. The argument that we faced rupture rather than permanent disruption was rehearsed on this site back in June this year – and there seems clear evidence, outlined above, that the rupture is busily being repaired by those for whom the status quo ante seemed just fine and dandy.
It is down to us actively to keep the lights shining – and, at the same time, to cast the flashlight into the dark corners that have appeared in the pandemic picture. The Great Reset may turn out to be just that: a crude dialling back to broadly where we were. But there is a different sort of reset, one that honestly evaluates the positivity that has flowed out of our circumstances over the past months. But we all need to give voice to that, declaring what we valued and denigrating what constrained us in those circumstances.