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Covid-19 and the Left: A Postmortem


Who’s afraid of talking about Covid-19? Vast swathes of the political class and the academic left, or so it would appear from the virtual impossibility of opening discussions with them in public or private about it (trust me, I have tried). “Mistakes were made”, or, as the historian David Runciman put it in the Guardian in March, it turned out that “the wider trade-offs – the toll lockdowns have taken on mental health, on treatment for other illnesses, on educational prospects – make it hard to draw any clear political lessons”. In fact, as he admits, “many outcomes were similar, regardless of the political choices that were made”: Sweden might have higher Covid death toll than Denmark, but it had “similar or even lower overall excess mortality rates from all causes”. In sum, after 4 years, there is no good evidence that lockdowns – in spite of their massive social, economic, gendered, and psychological harms – had any beneficial impact on overall societal health as measured through all-cause mortality. 

On the other hand, since 2020 the world’s richest made trillions while African economies were plunged into mass-austerity and the working classes across the West made massive economic losses. Runciman’s 5000-word essay in writhing self-exculpation wasn’t exactly the declaration of clear moral and political victory that so many on the Professional and Managerial Classes (PMC)-Left made early on in the pandemic. Where Nick Cohen could write in the Observer in May 2020 that Sweden was following a policy of “deadly folly” which was a “model for the right”, all Runciman could offer was a paean for those early days when everything was so simple for people who had little to lose, and everything to gain, from the institutionalization of home working: “The advent of Covid appeared to open up the prospect of new kinds of political solidarity. We were in this together. Covid’s global impact was a reminder of what it is that we all have in common”.

It turned out that what the world’s citizens most had in common was not vulnerability to Covid (hardly the most pressing concern for people living in informal settlements in Lagos and Mumbai, or for Amazon warehouse operatives in Milton Keynes). The global commonality across the Global North and Global South lay in governance by a “yes-boss” political class committed to both technocratic authoritarianism and the rampant explosion of class-based inequalities. Across the world, politicians saw in Covid the opportunity for personal profiteering on the one hand, and on the other to impose a sustained assault on genuine human communities from which organised resistance can arise. Indeed, the hard left Anonymous authors of the “far right” Conspiracist Manifesto argue that it was the relay of popular revolts across the world in 2019 – from Chile and Lebanon to Hong Kong and Catalonia – which was a key driver of the authoritarian response to the Covid pandemic.

Having been sold a pup, the PMC-Left seem incapable of critically examining what this might say about broader class and global political transformations. Like the amnesia which so naturally sets in to memories of episodes of trauma and guilt, it’s hardly a surprise that they feel that it’s “best to move on”. Certainly, it may be best for them. Yet while liberals may have moved on from Covid, Covid has not moved on from them, as the electoral success of the populist right in Europe and the polling for the upcoming US elections make clear. In fact, if the political left is to have an electoral future in the West beyond its Starmerized simulacrum, this is not a conversation that it can shirk through this kind of desperate intellectual inactivity.

There are however people who have been doing the work of critical thinking and analysis that was trolled and then ignored so thoroughly by vast swathes of the salaried thinking caste during the past few years. A number have collected their essays in a new volume, Covid-19 and the Left: The Tyranny of Fear edited by Elena Louisa Lange and Geoff Shullenberger, two former academics-turned-magazine editors/critics. Their view of how the debate can move forward is summarised in the opening lines of the book: “The COVID-19 pandemic put too much at stake for everyone to leave its assessment to the [academic] profession [whose chatter was] probably even responsible for the disastrous response that erstwhile critics in the humanities departments displayed”. In other words, for Lange and Shullenberger, whatever the reasons why the PMC-Left don’t want to discuss this, it’s best not to let them anyway – and unless your idea of political conversation is a hesitant 5-minute discussion which it has taken 3 hours and 3 pints of beer to induce in your PMC interlocutor, they are surely right.

Covid-19 and the Left is a seminal book. In the first part on the politics of the pandemic, editors Lange and Shullenberger consider the left’s abandonment of previous sacred cows in a bid for institutional power, especially academic reason (Lange) and postmodern understandings of the state and mediatised realities (Shullenberger). The opening chapter, by Lee Jones, describes the PMC-Left’s approach to the pandemic: Jones shows how the focus on shared vulnerabilities dominant in much of Western academia and liberal discourse obscured the class relations imposed by capital and technology. While Jones ascribes this to the academic left’s abandonment of class analysis in favour of intersectionality, there’s no reason why class can’t be a core category in intersectional framings (as indeed I suggested in my pre-Covid intellectual life, in the book A Fistful of Shells). His description of the distance of the PMC-Left from the working class and its concerns, and how this led to their dogmatic support for what was effectively a war on the poor, provides an excellent account of how this happened.

The second part of the book looks at the economic background and consequences of the pandemic response. The bureaucratization of the left, and the subsequent momentum of its Covid politics, are outlined by Leila Mechoui with a particular focus on Canada. Meanwhile, in the chapter which comes closest to linking the Covid shock to the broader technological revolution being experienced by humanity’s systems and consciousness, Thomas Fazi explores what he and I have called the Techno-Media-Pharma (TMP) complex. Here the rise of a money-printing nexus which syphons profits to corporate monopolists in these linked sectors, through a system of propaganda and surveillance capitalism, is described. In a later chapter, Fabio Vighi links this system to the broader transformation in neoliberal capitalism and the state underway since 2008, which in a liquidity crisis such as that which was emerging by late 2019 is sustained through quantitative easing syphoned away by the TMP monopolists – something which, as he astutely notes, they seem to have understood even if the PMC-Left have not.

The notion that Covid saw the “return of the state” took no account of the character of the modern neoliberal state as a bulwark for corporate authoritarian profiteering.

In this part of the book, some of the deepest failings of the intellectual class’s response to Covid are explored. Where icons of the modern left such as Naomi Klein had exposed the financial crisis of 2008 as a turning point in political history, in which the state no longer invested for the commons but to safeguard the profits of corporations – “privatizing the profits and socializing the losses”, as it was famously put – that understanding went missing in action in 2020, even though exactly the same dynamic took place. The notion that Covid saw the “return of the state” took no account of the character of the modern neoliberal state as a bulwark for corporate authoritarian profiteering. The idea remains – even in new and more constructively critical accounts such as that included by David Keen and Ruben Andersson in their book on the war economy, Wreckonomics – that the alternative in 2020 to what the PMC-Left labelled a “laissez-faire” approach was a traditional Keynesian response. But it had been clear since 2008 that that was never on the table, and it’s an idea that is shot down in unflinching detail in this part of the book.

Far from capitalism “coming to a halt”, the world’s billionaires were US$4 trillion richer by the end of the first year of the pandemic.

Equally as importantly, the focus here on new modes of capital accumulation through technology reveals the bankruptcy of the PMC-Left’s analysis. When I shared a panel with Mike Haynes and Panagiotis Sotiris at the 2022 Historical Materialism Conference at SOAS, in which we put forward a leftist critique of lockdowns, one of the critics in the audience lamented how “when lockdown began I celebrated, as capital had stopped accumulating”. A similar criticism was voiced when Richard Seymour lambasted The Covid Consensus in The Guardian in March 2023, noting that “the value judgment that most people made was that suspending capitalism for a while, even at some cost to their income, social lives and mental health, was a good thing”. Yet as Fazi and Vighi make clear, such critiques are grounded in 20th century economics, ignoring the real engines of capital accumulation in the 2020s: far from capitalism “coming to a halt”, the world’s billionaires were US$4 trillion richer by the end of the first year of the pandemic. In a world where the internet favours monopolists, putting almost all human activity online can only have had this outcome.

The concluding part of the book then provides case studies from Canada, the UK, Germany and Australia. The authors explore how existing political dynamics within these countries prefigured the pandemic response. In the Canadian case, for example, Gord Magill looks at the class difference between the truckers opposed to vaccine mandates and the media-political class. George Hoare’s article on the UK, meanwhile, links the PMC-Left’s response to the populist uprising of Brexit – once Brexit had happened, in late January 2020, the PMC-Left sought an opportunity to crush those who had dismissed their expertise with the Covid lockdowns. Even those who knew that the Covid response was classist feared speaking up in case they were labelled a “fascist”, a rhetorical tactic which had been honed for some time.

The PMC-Left wholeheartedly supported a series of neocolonial and unscientific policies which have savaged the economies of the Global South and set back socioeconomic gains and gender rights in Africa and Latin America by decades.

One thing that Lange and Shullenberger’s contributors do not discuss is the internationalist dimension so shocking in the Western left’s response. While this is now focused entirely on Gaza, as I have set out recently the PMC-Left wholeheartedly supported a series of neocolonial and unscientific policies which have savaged the economies of the Global South and set back socioeconomic gains and gender rights in Africa and Latin America by decades. According to the UN, 50 million people in Africa entered severe poverty since 2020. Daily hunger marches have taken place recently in countries such as Benin and Nigeria, but this is still something that “no one wants to talk about”.

When I discussed this with a friend in The Gambia last year, he initially said that people “didn’t agree with me”. I asked how they could not, and then he explained further: “They don’t agree with you for speaking out”. Ignoring your mistakes may seem like a sound political strategy, but it in fact exposes the intellectual and political crisis within the PMC-Left; on the one hand, the shocking complacency of its response, and on the other the intellectual crisis which has led to this, and which few within it dare to explore: the progressive focus on subjectivities, identities and individual agency, rather than on the material and collective class and global inequalities which shape them – and of which they are manifest beneficiaries. 

Instead, as the authors of this book show, the PMC-Left vacated to the populist right the terrain of understanding the authoritarian war on the poor and the role of the neoliberal state in enacting it. This is an abject political surrender to the ghosts of Thatcherism. And yet, the victory of the libertarian and racist right is hollow, one which rejects critique of the evisceration of the Keynesian state which has produced this catastrophe, and refuses to grasp the origins of the Western corporate authoritarian state in the history of colonialism. Nevertheless, when you read a headline in the Daily Mail that “Lockdowns are colonialist: Coalition of African scientists accuse WHO of ‘classic Western imperialism’”, and the Guardian ignores the African collective academic group which has campaigned on this issue, you know that the ideological inversion of neoliberalism is complete – and that once, like the majority of the Western population, you have seen the PMC-Left as it is, there’s no future for it.