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The weakened immunity of an individualistic society

KEVIN HARGADEN :: Our current market-focused political culture came to power after the oil crises of the 1970s. In normal circumstances, it would be highly unlikely that any electorate would vote for a system that systematically weakened social welfare, deregulated markets, and reorganised resources so that rich people were more likely to get richer.

But the architects of this approach to politics – typically referred to as neoliberalism – had a coherent plan when the crisis arrived that promised a return to stability and the easy patterns of everyday life. They emphasised how they could get inflation under control and eliminate the risk of queuing all day to receive a rationed portion of petrol or home heating oil.

A culture of “individual enterprise” drastically weakened social harmony

Within a few years, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were in power and the long decades of social democracy were over, replaced by a culture of “individual enterprise” that drastically weakened social harmony and hugely strengthened economic inequality.

The long experiment with neoliberalism has led to many things which, in theory, could be very positive. It has grown economies and fostered globalisation, but the wealth that was generated went disproportionately to the very rich and the increase in interconnectivity was not allied to any increase in global solidarity.

COVID-19, the Coronavirus, has hitched a ride on those neoliberal global trade networks to make a happy home in Iran, Italy, and now Ireland. It also exposes how any society built on individualism is fragile, bound to collapse eventually under the weight of evidence that we are interconnected. Economic models can imagine the small trader in Hubei Province in isolation from the childcare worker in Harmonstown, but the virus will pass between them nonetheless.

Many of the ideas that we have taken for granted begin to look absurd when considered in the light of this virus. Why do we have a two-tiered health system when we all face threats like this disease on the same footing? Private insurance may have had a function once upon a time, when Ireland was a young nation with a developing economy. To still operate such a system, with its inefficient use of resources and fundamental restrictions based on the ability to pay, when we are a mature democracy with a prosperous economy is obscene.

For decades, the assumption that market competition was more efficient than State intervention was treated almost like a religious dogma. Local government’s ability to build and maintain houses was gradually reduced because private developers were seen as a much more viable way of ensuring everyone has a home.

At the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, we are acutely concerned with the impact that this crisis will have on the most vulnerable in our society. We are in the throes of a housing and homelessness crisis which may be as bad as anything we have seen since the Famine era and a virus that flourishes when people are forced into tight proximity. Homeless shelters are full and, as our colleague Peter McVerry SJ can attest, they do not typically contain single, en-suite rooms.

Societies like Ireland, that have allowed economic inequality to widen, are societies at risk.

The neoliberal approach has thrived from emphasising personal responsibility and curtailing any sense that we owe strangers anything more than civility. The virus reveals this to be a mean-spirited myth. When clusters of infection arise because of precarious, shoddy, or non-existent housing, it won’t be any defence to declare that you “get up early in the morning” and that as a member of the “squeezed middle” you should be spared .

Societies like Ireland, that have allowed economic inequality to widen, are societies at risk. COVID-19 painfully reminds us that the gaps between the net worth of the top 10% and the bottom 10% is far less real than the forces that unite them. Social solidarity and the policies that encourage it are not utopian ideals. They are wise responses to the nature of reality.

Systemic injustices primarily victimise the poorest and most marginalised in our society, but they impoverish us all because they delude us into thinking that we aren’t all in this together. The spread of COVID-19 punctures the bubbles of social privilege and overwhelms the idea that there are some people who deserve rewards and others who deserve punishment.

This catastrophe must serve as a window through which we reimagine our political culture.

Thatcher said there was no such thing as society, just individuals. This is as neat a summary of the neoliberal view as can be imagined. COVID-19 shows it to be a mythic belief, tragic in how wrong it is, and catastrophic when applied in a society in such a crisis.

It is in poor taste to present the COVID-19 crisis in terms of opportunity. But if we consider the nature of this catastrophe, we begin to see how it must serve as a window through which we reimagine our political culture. To endure and learn from the unfolding pandemic means that we must, like the leaders of the last political revolution, develop a coherent plan that addresses the problems we all face together.

Regardless of statistical GDP growth, any society that cannot meet the baseline needs of all its citizens – education, nutrition, social inclusion, housing, healthcare – is impoverished. We have been weakened by decades of indoctrination in the fraudulent myths of neoliberalism.

We are bound together by an ecosystem which does not recognise class or race or nationality. There is no such thing as the individual without the society. This fundamental demand for solidarity must be the cornerstone for a new, more equitable, more resilient, more just political culture.

There can be a positive political impact.

The prominent American neoliberal politician, Rahm Emmanuel, said after the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, “Never let a serious crisis go to waste.” COVID-19 is as serious a crisis as can be imagined with a medical, cultural, and economic impact that we cannot yet countenance. These effects will be tragic.

But the clarity that it offers about our present vulnerability means there can be a positive political impact. It is high time to reject the politics of rampant individualism. The pressing need is for a politics that recognises common ground, draws on common sense, and builds for the common good.