Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 50 Number 18, May 16, 2020 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Coronavirus Pandemic

The Neo-liberal Fiction of "Balance"

On May 11, the government published its official Covid-19 recovery strategy, "Our plan to rebuild" [1]. The stated "aim at the centre of this plan" is to "return to life as close to normal as possible, for as many people as possible, as fast and fairly as possible in a way that avoids a new epidemic, minimises lives lost and maximises health, economic and social outcomes".

The second section, entitled "Our aims: saving lives; saving livelihoods", elaborates:

"The Government's aim has been to save lives. This continues to be the overriding priority at the heart of this plan.

"The Government must also seek to minimise the other harms it knows the current restrictive measures are causing - to people's well-being, livelihoods, and wider health. But there is a risk that if the Government rushes to reverse these measures, it would trigger a second outbreak that could overwhelm the NHS. So the UK must adapt to a new reality - one where society can return to normal as far as possible; where children can go to school, families can see one another and livelihoods can be protected, while also continuing to protect against the spread of the disease."

The underlying theme, already evident here, is of striking a balance: "Balancing the different considerations will involve some difficult choices."

There are various such "considerations" covered, under the headings of health, economic and social effects. But the title has already summed it up: "lives" vs "livelihoods", where, by sleight of hand, "livelihood" is made synonymous with "the economy", with "rebuilding", with securing success of business.

Hence, "the Government will need to steadily redesign the current social distancing measures... and carefully wind down economic support schemes while people are eased back into work."

This is the main point: getting people back to work, asap.

The notion is that there is a balance to be struck, a trade-off between the health and of the population and health of "the economy". The economy is thus pitted against the people. This spurious notion does not recognise that both economy and healthcare are matters of human relations and that the economy should be directed at the health and well-being of the people as its number one aim.

Notions of "balance" are a characteristic of liberal thought. Capitalism in its ascendency gave rise to liberal notions of democracy and rights that militated against the Old, the Feudal order. It gave rise in particular to the doctrine of the greatest good for the greatest number as a guide for governance and civil society.

Connected with the theory of natural aristocracy, the new capitalist hierarchy, this doctrine was commensurate with the aim of developing society in the image of the capitalist class, involving nation-building, including public works, and so on, with the capitalists as the natural rather than God-given ruling class. The party system, balancing various accommodated forces and the notion of a sovereign power authorised to speak and act in everybody's name was a democracy for the ruling elite; the masses were excluded from power.

In the present, however this is itself the Old: we are no longer in that period. In reality there is no balance. It is simply a fiction. There is no prevailing notion of the general interests of society, and no yardstick for the "the greatest good for the greatest number". "The economy" is synonymous with the interests of big business - the monopolies and global oligopolies.

On that basis, striking the right balance, as if it were an optimisation problem, a problem of engineering, is used as a smokescreen for the imposition of "exit strategies" on the population. "Our plan to rebuild" is neither "our" plan - it is that of the ruling elite, nor is it indeed a "plan" - it is pure pragmatism. Exit is even imposed by business unilaterally, with sections of manufacturing having returned to work even before the announced relaxation measures. Now the government brazenly announces that people should return to the workplace when unable to continue from home, with all the implications of pressure being exerted on individual workers to act against their own well-being.

The issue for the workers is that this is our economy and we decide. It should be directed at meeting our needs, not be opposed to them. Making dangerous concessions to the interests of the rich is not going to provide any solution to the crisis; rather, it will jeopardise the progress made against the spread of the virus, endangering everyone and threatening the economy even further.

[1] "Our plan to rebuild: The UK Government's Covid-19 recovery strategy", The Cabinet Office, May 11, 2020


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