Lockdowns are killing community

The Covid state is destroying what remains of our social solidarity.

Dave Clements

Topics Covid-19 Politics UK

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Back in 2008, I co-edited a book of essays called The Future of Community. It was subtitled Reports of a Death Greatly Exaggerated.

Twelve years on, it now does feel as if community is on its deathbed. Lockdowns are in force, masks are mandatory and pubs and churches are shut. And it looks as if we are in this suspended state until either a vaccine arrives and many of us gain immunity at some point next year, or we come to our senses, the lockdowns end and we are let back out again.

Back in March, when we entered into what we were told would be a very temporary hibernation, community was arguably thriving. Neighbours set up mutual-aid groups almost overnight using platforms like WhatsApp, and many people volunteered in large numbers for centrally and locally run schemes.

But, even then, there were signs that all was not well. Some other people were not so much looking out for as spying or snitching on each other. Whether out of fear of the virus, or the mutual suspicion that has been growing over recent decades, social solidarity has been under a lot of strain.

Furthermore, the voluntarism and altruism that we saw early on in the crisis has since been crowded out by state action. The state’s increasingly authoritarian interventions have made it difficult for people to act in a socially oriented way – it has even been made it difficult to care for members of one’s own family. We are effectively under house arrest or, as prime minister Boris Johnson likes to put it, the state is putting its arms around us. But it does not feel much like a cuddle. It feels more like suffocation.

So it is perhaps worth reminding ourselves just how different things looked four years ago. Until 2016, the orthodox view was that most people were apathetic, that they would not turn out to vote and needed educating in how to be good citizens and how to get involved. But the experience of the EU referendum changed things. Battling over an issue that affected all of our lives – and that feeling that we were ‘taking back control’ – engaged people like no issue had for decades. Indeed, after Brexit, policymakers seemed a lot less interested in encouraging engagement and active citizenship. If one was to be cynical, it looked as if our political class longed for the days when we were apathetic.

So there was a spark. People were politically engaged. The nature and future of the UK as a political community mattered to its members in a way it had not for years. People suddenly felt a part of something much larger than themselves.

But this has been snuffed out by the government’s response to Covid. And this suggests that the foundations of the popular, Brexit-inspired sense of community were a good deal shakier than we imagined.

And no wonder. Long before Brexit, people had had their sense of citizenship degraded. They had come to think of themselves as atomised, and vulnerable. And this led to an increasingly dysfunctional relationship between individuals and the state on which they became increasingly dependent. Brexit was never going to reverse that relationship overnight. So when Covid struck this year, it played on people’s long-standing, near emotional reliance on the state. That Boris thinks we need a hug rather than an immediate end to the lockdown, the restoration of our liberties, and an opportunity to get on with our lives, illustrates the problem.

There is opposition to the state-led lockdown – albeit limited to a vocal minority of academics, medics, journalists, politicians and newly emergent groups. And there is increasing criticism not just of the lockdowns, but also of some of the more regressive trends that it has brought to the surface. Hence groups like Save our Statues, the Free Speech Union, the Reform Party and Reclaim have emerged in recent months.

That many of these groups are on the right shows how the left is no longer interested in seeking common cause with the working man and woman, or in defending their liberties. Indeed, self-styled lefties are more likely to berate working people for their unconscious racism and white privilege; or to agitate for harder, longer, earlier lockdowns that will impoverish those who cannot work at home.

What passes for the left now stands in opposition to ordinary people and their communities. Those that want to develop a new progressive politics have to start again. Or at least start where we left off with the leftish case for Brexit. But, if we want to forge a sense of community again, we need to get beyond the middle-class ‘grow your own’ localism of which too many on the left are fond. We need global citizens in that expansive, albeit bounded, sense of people believing once more that they can change the world. That might seem like a big ask when we can’t even leave our own homes or associate in public (or in private, for that matter). But the experience of lockdown must, if nothing else, alert us to what really matters.

First Brexit, and now Covid, should remind us that the discussion about citizenship and community is not some abstract thing. It is not an academic discussion. It is an essential discussion. How we hold the political class to account, and how we organise ourselves, are questions that impinge directly upon our lives and the kind of society we want to live in. That is why we need to argue, once again, for the importance of community and resist the unwanted interventions of the state.

Yes, we need big state interventions in the economy – now more than ever – and at every level. But when it comes to rebuilding our neighbourhoods and creating a better society we need a minimal state not an expansive one – one that leaves most of us alone most of the time, not one that is trying to squeeze the life out of us.

To this end, we should be encouraged by those challenging the restrictions they face, and standing up against some of the more destructive trends in today’s political culture. Likewise we should be encouraged by protesters in central London on the eve of the second lockdown risking arrest, and by the quarantined students tearing down the fences enclosing them at Manchester Metropolitan University.

The locked-down are beginning to resist the intolerable conditions under which they are living, in an effort to free themselves from the illiberal constraints of the Covid state. There is still life left in our communities.

Dave Clements is a writer and policy adviser working in local government. He also chairs the Academy of Ideas Social Policy Forum. Follow him on Twitter: @daveclementsltd

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Covid-19 Politics UK


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