Research in the time of a pandemic: Coronavirus, Class and Mutual Aid in the UK

The Source
By: undefined, Thu Jul 16 2020

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In this week’s blog we are joined by Dr Rhiannon Firth and Professor John Preston to discuss their upcoming book Coronavirus, Class and Mutual Aid in the UK, which provides an application of theoretical sociological frameworks on the classed nature of the UK response and suggests alternatives as to how this may be better and more fairly organised. We look at the current economic systems in place and the role those play in terms of how the pandemic has developed. Moreover, we discuss how class, race, gender, and other factors render specific groups structurally vulnerable to the worst effects of the virus.

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In your upcoming book Coronavirus, Class and Mutual Aid in the UK you reference the Spanish flu of 1918. What are the similarities and differences you see between this historic pandemic and what the world is currently experiencing?

JP:  We are not historians, but there are some obvious differences in that they are not the same disease (Coronavirus is different to Influenza), we are only in the foothills of the Coronavirus pandemic, and one could point to changes in industry, technology and health care. The major similarity is that both pandemics took place in a predominantly capitalist world system. In the book I argue that there is a specificity about capitalism which is distinct from previous modes of production. Capitalism is concerned with profit though the exploitation of a specific commodity (labour power) from human workers and its own expansion. We are, though, at a different point in terms of the expansion of the ‘universe’ of capital than in 1918. States can not accept any alternative to the continuation of capitalist expansion. Despite this hegemony, capitalism is in crisis from its very beginning, and the Coronavirus pandemic occurs at a good time for capital in terms of restructuring, seeking new opportunities for profit and turning to the state as the ‘sovereign consumer’. At the same time capitalism is incredibly fragile in every moment and we describe a ‘multi-dimensional’ class war occurring at the level of the virus (in terms of property rights over biological entities and their extermination), the interests of the working class and the expansion of capital against human life and existence. 

RF: From an anarchist perspective, we can see how both these pandemics are used in mainstream media and popular discourse to glorify both commodified modern medicine and the organisational powers of the repressive state apparatus. This appears to present a challenge to anarchists, while at the same time the failures of the status quo are all too apparent. Both pandemics have relied heavily on self-organised volunteers and individual and collective actions to prevent the spread of the disease, such as wearing masks, avoiding crowds, and respecting others’ space. While the state pays lip-service to enforcing these measures, it is simply not possible for the state to be everywhere. Therefore, both pandemics act as illustrations of Colin Ward’s principle of Anarchy in Action - the idea that people do not need a state or external co-ordination in order to organize their affairs, but rather they are better at doing them themselves. While there were some examples of people behaving dangerously during the pandemic, for example crowding onto beaches in Bournemouth and round market stalls in Hackney, these appear to be the exception rather than the rule, and might just as well be attributed to confusing public health messaging from the government alongside the dangers of an alienated and unequal society where generic public health decisions are made at a highly centralised level and applied universally to people and communities in all sorts of different situations. An anarchist perspective would not eschew social distancing or practices to protect the health of others, but decisions concerning them would be made through direct democratic processes by communities themselves.

What role do capitalism and the current systems in place play in the spread of COVID-19 as well as to how we have responded to it?

RF: This is an enormous question, and really you have to read the book for a comprehensive answer. In the book we cover how inequalities render some people more vulnerable to the disease than others, and how these same people are also more likely to be more vulnerable to the effects of economic crises caused by the disease. John covers how capitalist circuits of value and exchange lead to the emergence and rapid spread of diseases, whilst excluding some people from the goods they need to survive everyday life within capitalism, increasing their vulnerability to disease. We touch upon how the ways in which capitalists encourage humans to instrumentalise nature can give rise to pandemics. We consider processes of state securitisation and repression, privatisation and accumulation by disposession as typical disaster capitalist responses. We cover attempts to co-ordinate, co-opt and control radical social movement responses, including but not limited to mutual aid, as forms of ‘social capital.’ In the final chapter, I consider pandemic relief from the perspective of social movements mobilising mutual aid, and I look at the ways in which anarchist movements attempt to link their immanent/prefigurative practices in the here-and-now to a forward-looking radical structural critique of the linked roles of state and capital. I argue that in order to resist co-optation in a de-radicalised discourse of ‘social capital,’ social movements need to maintain radical intentionality at the level of desire and also engage in actions which seek to defend spaces of autonomy from disposession and the encroachments of capital such as rent strikes, commoning and degrowth.

JP: Time and space compression is an important element of capitalist dynamics. Commodities are produced as quickly as possible, bringing workers in close contact with each other, and encouraging mass travel and expanding supply chains. Capitalism is not a system which can stop or pause, begrudging even a few seconds. Workers, consumers and commodities are in constant contact with each other which provides an ideal basis for the spread of viruses. The response has been motivated by profit in terms of vaccines, masks and home deliveries. There are some specific ways in which the pandemic response has been managed. Viruses can be considered as ‘forces of nature’ which enable some elements of capitalist production such as working from home technologies and the pharmaceutical industries as part of ‘disaster capitalism’. We also see the use of the ‘repressive state apparatus’ in terms of increased emergency, police and army powers.    

How can Marxist, Anarchist and class theories provide us with a better understanding and analysis of the pandemic?

RF: I’ll leave John to cover the Marxist perspective in more depth, although a key argument of the book is that a constructive dialogue and elements of shared perspective between particular, non-vanguardist, anti-statist forms of Marxism alongside anarchism is both possible and desirable. This is a contentious claim, and is also a tricky line to walk, since anarchists often define their ideology in contrast, or outright opposition to Marxist theories, and traditionally relationships have been antagonistic, with Marxists historically trying to take a vanguard relation to anarchists, trying to co-opt and co-ordinate their decentralised efforts into state-led programmes. Anarchists see the state as a primary antagonist, so have opposed state-led communism as vehemently as capital. Nevertheless, when using more open and autonomous forms of Marxism, we feel that we can emphasise their relative strengths: Marxism offers incredibly strong analytic critique of capitalism and of classed practices, whilst anarchism offers a more utopian vision or prefiguration of possible alternatives by helping us to understand the examples set by social movements and by working class communities engaging in self-organised mutual aid in the here-and now.

JP: The specific Marxist approaches that I use in the book, value critique and open Marxism, make clear that categories such as ‘work’ and ‘labour’ have a specific meaning in capitalism.  Work under capitalism involves labour power for the production of value and has an abstract nature. Capitalists are concerned with the expansion of this universe of ‘value’ (which they perceive as profit). In a pandemic, as always, capitalists will seek ways of expanding value but they depend on a constant supply of labour power to do this.  A pandemic is potentially problematic for capital as, although it presents opportunities, it interrupts commodity production and circulation and makes workers reluctant to supply labour power. A Marxist analysis of this type helps us to understand both the movement of capital in search of profits and why there is a move to rapidly establishing ‘normal’ patterns of work.  It also enables us to understand why the working class (in a Marxist sense) are revolutionary as they collectively control this unique commodity (‘labour power’). Open Marxism and value critique remind us that a society based on labour power as the ultimate principle (as in state capitalist societies) would be equally exploitative. Parties or revolutionary vanguards do not necessarily act in working class interests and there is sympathy with syndicalist and grassroots anti-capitalist movements and we can see these alternatives develop as the state withdraws support. As Rhiannon states, there is some alignment between these forms of Marxism and anarchism.      

How are inequalities exposed during a pandemic and what forms do these inequalities take?

JP: In the book we discuss class inequalities but also how the pandemic exacerbates inequalities in terms of race, gender and sexuality. Many commentators have discussed how pandemics make existing inequalities worse (because of differences in impact and response) and how these events expose hidden inequalities. The distinctive point that I wanted to make, particularly in terms of class inequalities, was that pandemic policy and practice has a role in making inequalities and differentials that did not exist before.  In chapter 3, I use the work of sociologists of class (Pierre Bourdieu and Beverley Skeggs are particularly influential) to show how aspects of pandemic policy privilege a ‘middle class’ type of ‘self-making’. On the one hand, people who can work from home, who consume online, have the resources to self-isolate and are involved in ‘checking’ themselves and others (in terms of complying with the advice) are taken to be the ideal, middle class, subjects of the pandemic response. On the other, people who work outside or with others, who consume in shops, can’t comply with isolation for economic reasons and don’t ‘check’ themselves and others are the working class pathologized and ‘spreaders’.  That is not a consequence of the pandemic but a result of pandemic policy and practice. New class inequalities and differentials are created by the action of government, businesses and even charities.     

In your forthcoming book Coronavirus, Class and Mutual Aid in the UK you explore the relationship between COVID-19 and capitalism, class, crisis and resistance. What are the main lessons we can draw from that?

RF: The book as a whole considers how class, race, gender, and other factors render specific groups structurally vulnerable to the worst effects of the virus. My chapter looks at how working class and politicised people resist this by helping each other within and against capitalism, whilst prefiguring alternative forms of community based on solidarity and mutual aid. However, I also consider how such actions are vulnerable to being co-opted and de-politicised, both by the state, and by professionalised middle-class interests. The state/capital formation has a repertoire of actions at its disposal for dealing with mutual aid, ranging from securitized and militarised lockdown rules effectively preventing the possibility of mutual aid; to a more laissez-faire neoliberal approach backed up by economic stimulus which might encourage mutual aid to flourish. From the anarchist view both stimulus and securitization are two sides of the same coin designed to protect the needs of capital by stopping people from revolting in insurrection and/or engaging in exodus from the system by meeting their own needs though social recomposition. My chapter argues that the main lessons to be learned are awareness of these dual strategies. Activities like mutual aid which are easily recuperable into a mainstream social capital and associationalist perspectives and policies need to be supplemented with resistant activities that protect mutual aid as a sphere of autonomy. This also requires creating and defending specific places that can act as hubs for activities: for example squats, community gardens, intentional communities, temporary autonomous zones.

How can disaster preparedness campaigns be interpreted and understood within racial and classed contexts?

RF: John’s section of the book critiques how the disaster preparedness of the capital/state formation impacts unequally on different sections of society, even when it appears discursively to objectify everyone equally. For example, treating people as a ‘herd’ not only treats them as disposable, but is bound to impact most severely on people who are forced to leave the house to work - i.e. people who are more likely to already be structurally disadvantaged due to their race, class, gender. In my chapter, I look at ways in which capitalist interests and state securitization prevent mutual aid from radicalizing and spreading - through policies, discourses, and media manipulations that attempt to divide and rule movements. For example, the common trope recently repeated by Donald Trump that social movements such as Black Lives Matter are radicalized by ‘outside agitators’ who are predominantly white and middle class. This acts as a form of historical erasure against the working class, black and feminised roots of solidarity practices like mutual aid, and the ways in which violence at protests and riots is often secondary, stemming from repression of communities trying to meet their own needs directly. Therefore, while mutual aid is an incredibly effective and practical resource, it needs to be understood as a a radical concept and is linked to a wide-ranging critique of capitalism, racism, patriarchy and ecological domination in anarchist movements. Anarchists are against all forms of authoritarianism and domination, including racism and classism so their ideology works well with other anti-authoritarian movements.

JP: In a previous book (Grenfell Tower, Preparedness, Race and Disaster Capitalism) I looked at the raced and classed consequences of disaster preparedness campaigns in the Grenfell Tower fire.  Although that was for a specific tower block the same lessons apply in terms of the ambiguity of advice and how ‘stay put’ is used selectively to disadvantage certain populations in disasters. The magnitude of pandemic death and disease in the United Kingdom, and the inadequacy of government response, means that we are experiencing multiple disasters of that scale every single day. Like Grenfell, this is a eugenic policy. The British government is very good at planning for mass deaths in disasters. In the book I explain how UK government disaster planning has always been experimental in its willingness to countenance deaths as long as the state and capital are maintained.   

Did you already have an idea for the subject matter of this book which was crystalized by current events? How did this project come together?

RF: John and I have been working together for over 7 years, and have previously worked together on a research project on ‘natural’ disaster preparedness and relief. I am currently writing another book on Disaster Anarchism, for which I already have a contract with Pluto Press, which I have been researching and writing for the last 5 years. This includes interview material with Occupy Sandy - an anarchist-ish mutual aid movement that mobilized disaster relief in New York in 2012 after Hurricane Sandy. John and I both share a broadly radical analysis, as described in the book, with John taking a more open/autonomist Marxist stance, and myself taking a broadly anarchist stance. We read and discuss each other’s work lots and the book draws on conversations and knowledge of each other’s work and perspectives that has been taking place over this whole time. While the current crisis is unique, part of the argument in our book is that the destructive nature of the crisis stems from capitalism as an ongoing disaster, so therefore some general analytic and theoretical principles can be applied to our understanding of this specific disaster. The dynamics and organization of the mutual aid groups that arose in London during COVID-19 shared many parallels with the mutual aid that occurred in New York after Hurricane Sandy, which I have already been thinking about for a long time - although there are also important differences. I believe John similarly observed lots of similarities and differences with his ongoing analyses of capitalist value in preparedness pedagogies which he has also been researching for a long time. I had already started collating links and resources and writing thoughts when John invited me to contribute to this book. When you have been thinking about something for a long time, it is hard not to become obsessed when suddenly it starts unfolding all around you. Add being locked in the house to the mix and suddenly having a lot of extra time on our hands - we swiftly found we had written enough material for a book in record time (for me anyway - I usually write quite slowly). We are both proud of the book and surprised how quickly it came together, but were concerned we might be criticised for publishing ‘too soon,’ without time to properly process and research current events, or of jumping on a bandwagon. However, as we indicate at the book, we are aware that we are writing from the foothills of the pandemic, and that events may take an unexpected turn which we were unable to predict at the time of writing. These are the risks of ‘live sociology,’ and of course, all sociology dates eventually. However, we hope that readers feel we make a valuable contribution by mixing our long-term research, analyses and conversations with the anxiety-provoking events we found ourselves in the midst of.

JP: I have been working with Rhiannon for a long time on topics related to disasters, politics and resistance.  My main research interest is disaster preparedness and social inequalities, particularly in terms of class and race. I have previously written on pandemic preparedness and the extraordinary detail in UK government planning for pandemic deaths which was out of proportion to their preparedness for other aspects. The COVID-19 pandemic brings out so many of the themes I have been writing about in terms of inequalities, behavioural science and state response that I started writing about it quite early on and just carried on from there.

Why did you choose to publish your research in a book format and what do you think the benefits of this format are for this topic specifically?

RF: I often find that article-length pieces are too short to properly process complex and multi-faceted arguments. I think that our book has a ‘conversational’ quality since some of the chapters are co-written, whilst others we each sole-authored. I think this reflects the relationship between our theoretical perspectives - there are complementarities, but also important differences, and the dialogue between them is productive.

What is disaster capitalism and how it relates to the world health crisis we are going through?

RF: Disaster capitalism is a theory, most famously expounded by Naomi Klein, that neoliberalism is constituted by ‘shock doctrine’ policies that are ushered through in times of crisis, but which people in a democracy would never accept under ‘normal’ conditions. This disguises the fact that capitalism itself is an ongoing disaster. Policies justified by disaster result in the disposession of communities’ goods and the accumulation of profit for capitalists. While conspiracy theories about the virus abound, the theory of disaster capitalism shows we do not need to think that disasters are, for example, man-made, in order to understand that powerful sociopaths will mobilise the fear, panic, and momentary lack of scrutiny in their own interests. In a fantastic book which we cite several times by Erica Lagalisse (Occult Features of Anarchism, 2019, PM Press), she argues that the affective lack of trust expressed by many conspiracies may lead to misplaced targets, but also encapsulates a quite accurate structural analysis that our governments may be lying to us when they imply that their foremost interest is to protect and serve us. Anarchists believe this is the very essence of the Hobbesian state: to lie to us that our human natures require we are told what to do, otherwise our lives will be 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’ At the same time, by preventing people from meeting their needs collectively through property laws and repression of movement, the state creates the conditions which produce these individualistic and competitive subjectivities. Disasters serve to magnify crises of capitalism, but it is capitalism that produces disasters, not the other way around.

How does the application of sociology help us understand better the classed nature of the UK COVID-19 response?

RF: My research is interdisciplinary - my PhD was in Politics and I worked in an Education department before I joined the Sociology department at Essex. I’m interested in political theories and utopian desires, whether implicit or explicit, and how these affect the knowledges and actions of social movements. I think this is very apt for understanding what’s going on in the current crisis, in terms of the sudden proliferation of mutual aid disaster relief social movements, and the ways in which they can/do/should resist encroachments by competing/dominant political theories and discourses that seek to deradicalize and dispossess them.

JP: Sociology enables us to approach the issue of class from different perspectives and to explore the links between those perspectives. Marxist theory is well established in sociology, but I don’t think that value critique and open Marxism have been as widely used by sociologists (as opposed to philosophers and political theorists) as they might have been.  Sociological theory also enables us to see the join between the economic, cultural and health aspects of life. How people buying toilet rolls, wearing masks or going to the pub are not just class issues, but part of a class war.  That makes it a sociological issue on various theoretical and practical levels.

We are currently seeing a lot of research being produced for COVID-19 in STM fields but your new book is a critical work on COVID-19 from an HSS field. What is the most significant difference in the HSS approach to COVID-19 research? What are some of the most inspiring lenses we can take on this pandemic from a humanities angle?

RF: STEM research and the natural sciences often tends to focus on identifying and controlling specific natural causes and effects of disasters, whereas disaster researchers, policy-makers and practitioners tend to avoid the phrase ‘natural disasters’ when talking about holistic and complex phenomena. The standard definition of a disaster is that it is a rupture in the functioning of society caused by the interaction between the scale of the disaster and the vulnerability, exposure, and capacity of the affected communities. These are unavoidably social and political phenomena: they are about where, how, and at what scale we decide to build and run our communities. STEM research is valuable and saves lives, but it rarely questions the socio-economic and socio-technical conditions and structures that give rise to disasters, or considers how we might organise and make decisions to change them.

JP: A HSS approach can challenge pre-existing categories, not just in a relativist fashion, but in terms of developing or employing new theoretical perspectives.  I think that scientists have sometimes been appalled at how unscientific the approach to COVID-19 has been in various countries. HSS, particularly critique and policy sociology, can explain why this is happening and suggest ways to deal with this.

What advice do you have for other researchers working in HSS fields who are considering writing a book on COVID-19?

RF: I think it is very natural to process events, and especially difficult and anxiety-producing events, in terms of our pre-existing knowledge and frameworks. So I would guess that many researchers are already trying to apply their knowledge to understand the current situation as a matter of course, and I am sure that this will lead to some incredibly exciting works. I think I would suggest that writers try to pay particular attention to the ways in which their pre-existing frameworks fail them - which is often where the greatest fears and anxieties arise. For example, I have heard many anti-authoritarians and even anti-statists express great dismay and confusion during the COVID-19 crisis arising from their own desire for governments to impose more repressive lockdown measures. This is a contradiction that needs to be explored - and exploring it intellectually while refusing to cave in to the constant pull of the dominant consensus, could potentially create even more creative processes of resistance and exodus. I think it’s important to retain an authentic core set of beliefs and values, and to deepen these by refusing to shy away from contradictions and tensions. I don’t think I have explored this particular tension sufficiently yet, although I touch on it in the book, and I hope to consider it more in my future work.

JP: Don’t be intimidated by people who say that you shouldn’t because it is too early or that your field is not relevant to COVID-19.   There are plenty of gatekeepers, particularly on social media, who seem to consider that the pandemic is too raw a subject to tackle.  That strikes me as odd considering that HSS has not been reluctant to explore other aspects of human behaviour or experience.  

Other blogs you may find interesting:   

Research in the time of a pandemic: Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention

Research in the time of a pandemic: SENTINEL- A proactive, early warning system to pre-empt future pandemics

Research in the time of a pandemic: How a 2018 BBC documentary helped advance COVID-19 research

To discover and access the latest research on coronavirus for free, as well as to find out about the ways Springer Nature supports the research community during this crisis, visit our SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 hub.

All our interviews reflect the views and opinions of the interviewees.

About John Preston 

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John Preston is Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex. He works on social inequalities and how they are produced and reinforced in disasters and emergencies. He is the author of several books on disaster preparedness including “Grenfell Tower: Preparedness, Race and Disaster Capitalism’ (2019).

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About Rhiannon Firth

Rhiannon Firth is Senior Research Officer in Sociology at the University of Essex. She works on anarchist utopias, anti-authoritarian social movements and prefigurative politics. She is author of the book ‘Utopian Politics’ (2012), and is currently writing a second sole-authored book on ‘Disaster Anarchism’ (under contract).

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