Covid-19 – Authoritarianism, woke hypocrisy and the opportunity to build a better society?

19th May 2020

Authors: James Treadwell, John Bahadur Lamb, Adam Lynes and Craig Kelly

At the time of writing, the debate continues regarding how most advanced capitalist countries are responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, especially as some commentators seem to have discovered that a different policy is being adopted in Sweden (Holroyd, 2020).

Criminologists, of course, will know well that Europe can provide examples of different policy, and have long contrasted the penal policy of parts of Northern Europe and Scandinavia with those of the UK and US.  So too, there are comparisons to be made between police force function in the UK, US and on the continent.  We need not see pictures of the French Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité beating Gilet Jaunes and firefighters in Paris, or the Cuerpo Nacional de Policía in Catalonia, to realize that the function of gendarmeries is primarily to protect that state, rather than to protect the property and liberty of individual citizens, as the police in England and Wales have done historically. Perhaps it is for that reason, at least partially, that any seemingly overzealous enforcement can seem jarring and why academics are warning police to build, not damage, community relations to avert disorder (Reicher and Stott, 2020).

There has been less media coverage of the fact that the police approach in England and Wales has largely been to stress engagement (where officers will initially encourage voluntary compliance) explanation and education of the public about the risks and the wider social factors (NPCC, 2020). Such encouraged compliance and emphasis of the benefits to the NHS, with enforcement a last resort, allows the police to maintain consent. The police have similarly not received near the public aplomb of the NHS, despite the fact that their role has become ever more challenging due to similarly far-reaching austerity measures (HMIC, 2014). Indeed, that may explain why the Home Office official handle on Twitter recently responded negatively to a Sky News report headlined ‘Coronavirus: Third of Britons think police have gone “too far” in some cases in enforcing lockdown’ (Sky News, 2020), pointing out that over 70% expressed no such sentiment at all (Home Office, 2020).

Yet the creep of authoritarianism is not merely from on high. Cambridgeshire Police have released an Orwellian app allowing individuals to report their neighbours for infringement of the rules of lockdown (Mills, 2020). Meanwhile, Staffordshire Police suggested that they had been inundated with citizens reporting their neighbours for breaching statutory guidelines (Burnett, 2020). Ironically, this was the police complaining about ordinary citizens being too punctilious and confusing guidelines with the law. We might want to at least consider why it is that some citizens seem to want to witness an even more aggressive and less liberal interpretation of the law.

While we have described the rapid emergence of a political and cultural milieu that has helped form and solidify cynical individualist subjectivities which lead to the flouting of guidance on social distancing, we also ought to note that the government is acting with little democratic accountability, oversight or scrutiny. As some, such as Phillip Cunliffe, have perceptively noted, an array of “millennial socialists, Corbynistas, Guardianistas and intersectionalists [once] bitterly opposed to Brexit and Boris Johnson” as authoritarian and anti-democratic now seem to welcome restrictive legislation, such as The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 pass with barely a note of objection (Cunliffe, 2020).  They deplore individuals that they perceive to be in breach of the injunction to ‘stay at home and save lives’, with not a thought about how this impacts differently across the social strata.

For clarity, we are in no way disagreeing with what is the statutory injunction to ‘stay at home and save lives’ a strategy devised by those far better informed than us.  Nor are we suggesting that, as the virus rapidly spreads, encouraging self-quarantine, social distancing, and remote work to stem the impacts is wrong.  Rather, we are highlighting how COVID-19 has brought to light intolerant views of some who usually claim to be the antithesis of such.  In the coming weeks, the marginalised and vulnerable will likely bear the brunt of the government’s failures and omissions. Steady and suitable living accommodation, for example, is not something all people have.  For some, a safe home is beyond reach.  Domestic and intimate partner violence and child abuse are a stain on society at the best of times.  They are unlikely to become less so in the context of the lockdown.  Yet condemnatory, uncritical and reactive sentiments are already apparent in some quarters aimed at those merely perceived to be flouting guidance.

There are some alarming examples of people hosting parties and barbecues. Yet at the same time we should recognise that experiences of the lockdown are massively influenced by class and economic capital. How can they not be when some of the rich have escaped to second homes or super yachts?  It is the low-paid bus drivers, nurses, prison support officers and cleaners who risk dying at work.  The ability to tolerate large amounts of time at home or to properly self-isolate is determined by how much space and resources we have at our disposal, whether we live with violent partners, and access to gardens. For those in a spacious home with broadband, a pleasant garden and two cars on the drive, the COVID-19 pandemic is unlikely to amount to more than a temporary inconvenience.  Those who purchased enough pasta and pesto to fill the pantry can now merrily chide a family of five sharing a cramped third floor flat for having the audacity to take the children to the park.

There has long been a tendency to condemn, scorn and tell others exactly how they should be acting without any pause to consider their needs or circumstances.  That this now frequently seems to emanate from people who (until recently), were all too willing to purport to others the advantages bestowed by privileges of identity, can only add to the long-term sense of social injustice already apparent in the UK.  In a brilliant turn of phrase, Cunliffe (2020), notes that many who would (or do still) describe themselves as liberal now seem very authoritarian.  They desire ‘control without authority’ from a state they so frequently called ‘fascist’ and ‘authoritarian’ mere weeks ago.  That this occurs when, until recently, we were talking about the inter-generational, class and demographic injustice and division in the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, should be acknowledged.  The feeling for many people in society that there might be too little governmental recognition of their plight, is even more concerning.  Until we can comprehend how dehumanised the system is, we will likely continue to see this division. The impact of the pandemic will not be the spirit of national unity and social cohesion the media are attempting to cultivate, but a growing feeling of division and injustice. The pandemic will pass, but we must find a way to go forward together, not regress to previous division. That demands more understanding and empathy for the lives of others.