democraciaAbierta: Opinion

Pandemic politics, oligarchic times and the idiotic subject of ‘freedom’

To radically transform our way of life we need to construct the public spaces at all levels in order to have a dignified social and collective, or simply political, life. (Long read). Español

Carlos Frade
21 May 2020
A message of support for key workers is displayed on an LED screen on top of Tower 42, in the City financial district of London.
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Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/PA Images

For, paraphrasing Immanuel Kant, no dignity can possibly exist without a public realm, but only price and servitude; if you cannot afford it, bad luck, because you will be left to die. Nor should you think yourself fortunate if, through a ‘charitable’ donation, those who consider themselves masters and the fat cats pretend to save your life, because you are to live – if you happen to save yourself – with your servitude intensified and they with their domination recognised.

Why is the Right, i.e. the political forces which represent and defend the bourgeoisie, and the oligarchic strata with an even greater determination, so nervous and agitated (e.g. in Spain), and why is it so shaky and zigzagging after having boasted to subdue, or at least bully, the world (as is the case in the UK)?

The reason is that the Right has bumped into a real problem, namely, that the coronavirus pandemic has suddenly dissipated the smokescreens which usually pervade normal times, and has forced practically everybody to see and live in their own flesh the deathly consequences of the criminal politics the same Right has carried out against public health and public services, especially over the last ten years.

Furthermore, the pandemic compels almost everyone to truly realise, at least for a moment, about the absolutely vital importance of the public realm (including public services), that is, of that which belongs to everyone, in exactly the same measure and without exception – indeed being self-constituted and not granted (by whom?), it is the nemesis of any kind of concession or donation. In other words, the existence and the very meaning of the public realm lie precisely in the guarantee it provides that no one, either individual or institution, will arrogate the power to grant or deny any portion of what is common – that common which constitutes us as society – to anyone.

This is the crucial point: the flash that reveals the unquestionable value of the public realm. It is also the best moment to underscore the fact that capitalism is not in crisis – the world is, a world whose tragic fate seems to be that it can’t be imagined otherwise than as a capitalist world. Indeed, the world may be falling apart, but capitalism continues to be ‘open’ for business as usual, and profiteering and profiting more than usual.

We cannot pretend to be surprised, let alone shocked, to see that ‘hedge funds [are] “raking in billions” during coronavirus crisis’, or that the ‘private firm running UK PPE stockpile was sold in middle of pandemic’, or that hedge funds and Brexit supporter ‘hedgies’ determine crucial aspects of the means to control the pandemic, and so on and on and on – no surprise then, although I do reckon the unavoidable half-smile breaking through our faces when those servants of domination whose business is to defend capitalist practices regardless offer us headlines like this, ‘hedge fund kings betting against our firms’, as though there could be an ‘our’ for capitalism other than in the well-known forms of exclusionary, classist, racist, misogynist – in brief, criminal – ‘our’.

It is the capitalist bourgeoisie, or rather oligarchy, which, despite the appearances (‘America’s super-rich see their wealth rise by $282 billion in three weeks of pandemic’), has a cold, although a considerably annoying and potentially dangerous one should that possibility hinted at by the pandemic become articulated into a clear political disjunction between, on one side, the public realm and the mutual solidarity, fraternity and sorority that constitute it, and, on the other, alms or ‘charitable’ donations and all they imply in terms of domination, brutal inequalities and foolish individualism.

This is a real contradiction, for a public realm, that is to say, the existence of a central aspect of social life which is ruled by principles and values, is the very nemesis of capitalism and what the capitalist logic does not tolerate. We will see in a moment that it is also what the capitalist oligarchies, chief carriers of that logic, are bent on destroying and appropriating, including at the level of an incipient global public realm to fight against the pandemic, as this shows: ‘push against global patent pool for Covid-19 drugs’.

It remains to be seen whether the massive popular support for the NHS as a public health system, and more generally for public services, will be articulated into an effective political force able to reclaim the public realm and institute some basic principles of collective life. What is certain is that this can hardly happen if there is no clarity about the current political conjuncture and orientation about how to act in it.

This article is a contribution to that labour of clarification and orientation, and this precisely in a moment when the Right and its lethal wealth defence industry are working hard to cover up, obscure, obfuscate and disorient. The task that emancipatory (or progressive, if you want) political forces have to confront requires them not only to sustain the flash revealing the decisive import of the public realm, but make people see the absolutely imperative necessity of taking a further step, the decisive one, and defend it actively as the most precious treasure of collective life, at least of a dignified collective life, in the Kantian sense of dignity, as reads the epigraph at the beginning of this article.

The alternative is clear: Either the public realm, or ‘charitable’ donations

This is the only alternative, there is no other. But it can be said in different ways: Either dignity, or ‘charity’. And also: Either freedom, or servitude. We have to take sides, indeed everyone will take sides, whether we want it or not, for not taking sides amounts to taking the side of the powers in place, that is, of domination, and therefore of servitude. It goes without saying that the oligarchy and the political forces at its service have their side clear, in truth they do not need to take it because they are already there, they have always been there.

In other words: the Right needs not even think about this because it acts by instinct: the instinct of the owner who becomes at once convinced that possessing wealth and money is an automatic qualification for human excellence and for domination – indeed, they go to enormous lengths to have this recognised, to the point of calling ‘freedom’ the blatant assertion of the flurry of whims, appetites and desires that wealth unleashes, but this is obviously a big misnomer for something whose proper and only name is oligarchic instinct. This instinct is a full-fledged subjective disposition which, as Marx shows in his analyses of class struggles in times almost as thickly oligarchic as ours, is not a mere effect of the structure of the world but is itself a powerful maker of the world. The latest historical articulation of that instinct, the one suitable for capitalism and the capitalist oligarchy, was provided by the doctrine called with a certain exaggeration ‘liberal’ – for liberal it is, but only with capital, so we have here a second, closely related, misnomer.

Now, of the two sides of the ‘liberal’ doctrine, let us start with the ‘donations’ because they may be deceptive, while the appropriations, which we will address in a moment, are in principle straightforward. Of course, all oligarchs are ‘liberals’. Contrary to what we often hear, there are no bad (e.g. ‘libertarian’) and good (‘liberal’) oligarchs, they are all of the same kind and the differences between them are only of degree. The central importance of ‘charitable’ donations to maintain domination can be gathered by the bustle we are observing during the lockdown, with several ‘donations’ announced urbi et orbi practically on a daily basis, and news outlets describing all the details (who, how much, to whom) and providing large lists of ‘donors’, there are even billionaire trackers.

Of course, ‘billionaires very theatrically donate a fraction of what they used to give back in taxes, making sure to generate maximum publicity for their actions’. This is certainly true. And yet, important as this may be, the point is not about how much the oligarchs ‘donate’, or about how loudly they blow (or rather have others blow) their own trumpet, nor is it about how generous they are, and this not only because poor people – as is well-known – donate infinitely more than the rich in relation to what they have, but because generosity is totally at odds with the logic on which ‘voluntary’ and ‘charitable’ donations are inscribed – but to explain that logic in all its lethal simplicity, something that is rarely done, we need to return to Adam Smith, the father of the modern ‘liberal’ regime.

Benevolence is an individual quality which consists in giving without receiving anything in exchange, gratis.

For it was the famous author of The Wealth of Nations who put ‘charity’ in its place, so to say – but Smith spoke of ‘benevolence’, for charity denotes a fraternal relation (indeed, it is a Christian practice) he thought was contrary to the capitalist system for which he was developing a new legitimizing doctrine. Benevolence is an individual quality which consists in giving without receiving anything in exchange, gratis – or so Smith thought – and voluntarily (it cannot be imposed).

However, to understand the function of benevolence it is necessary to relate it to justice, nothing less, which Smith reduces to what the classics called ‘commutative justice’, that is, merely commercial or contractual justice, that which regulates exchanges between private persons. Regarding distributive justice, well, Smith didn’t even want to hear it mentioned, and ‘rightly so’ – I am tempted to say – for not only is distributive justice the foundation of the public realm, it is also the real, that is, the impossible of capitalism, and its rejection is what justifies the existence and the toil of liberalism.

But there is more, for the Smithian notion of justice does not simply leave out any idea of duty and virtue, but is positively founded upon the exclusion of duty and virtue. To act justly for Smith has nothing to do with doing good, but (I quote) ‘only hinders us from hurting our neighbour’, which obviously implies a very substantial reduction in the Christian or simply human demands towards our fellow women and men – hence the appropriateness of telling the many advocates of this regime who often profess to be Christians that theirs is a diluted Christianity, indeed so much so that the only thing Christian remaining is the name.

But whether partial and limited or not, this Smithian justice is essential, according to him, for the existence of society, hence the imposition of its observance by the state, while benevolence is not essential, but only a dispensable ornament – and this in spite of the fact that Smith leaves the ‘labouring poor’ or (as he often says, for they are the same) ‘the great body of the people’, i.e. de facto the majority of the population, at the expense of benevolence.

Thus, if justice is essential but only concerns exchanges between private persons, while benevolence is dispensable, then the function of the government admits no doubts. Let’s quote Smith again: ‘The first and chief design of every system of government is to maintain justice; to prevent the members of a society from incroaching [sic] on one another’s property’, that is, to ‘ascertain the property of the rich from the inroads of the poor’ – ‘the poor’ or ‘the great body of the people’ which in Smith’s doctrine are the enemy par excellence.

An even more suitable definition of the function of government is provided in the famous Federalist Papers, crucial documents in the USA constitutional process drafted by some of the ‘founding fathers’. Paper number 10, perhaps the most renowned one, argues that ‘the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property’ is ‘the first object of government’, thus providing a more dynamic definition focused on protecting not only existing wealth and the rich (Smith), but the acquisition (and therefore accumulation) of wealth by the rich.

And these precepts (protect wealth and its acquisition by the rich) are obviously instinctively and automatically applied at all times, but particularly during serious crises. We need not go here into the details of the rescue packages put in place by the USA and the UK governments; suffice it to mention some routine basics: the USA package is ‘a titanic upward redistribution of wealth’ which includes a $500 billion bailout fund for big businesses and a $170 billion tax break for real estate investors like Trump, all with no or inapplicable oversight provisions – a ‘robbery in progress’ presented by the corporate and mainstream media as a rescue plan for ‘the US economy’.

The banks were bailed out in the 2009 crisis, now it is the turn of the big corporations.

Regarding the UK package, the most significant aspect – leaving aside the habitual insufficiency and multiple inadequacies of the help for key workers, sick pay, the unemployed and families facing extreme hardship, or employees helped through a furlough scheme completely dependent on the whim of ‘the bosses’ – is probably the £7.5 billion in big business bailouts provided by the Bank of England, a financial support with no-strings-attached and hidden from public view. This is the business as usual approach typical of oligarchic regimes: the banks were bailed out in the 2009 crisis, now it is the turn of the big corporations.

Donations: the first servitude and the first corruption

Adam Smith is oblivious – in truth this is a structural obliviousness in his doctrine and in his politics of domination – to the most elementary principle of political sociology, namely, that those who can practice benevolence, i.e. the rich, are in no way content with being rich and ruling, but they want us to believe that, if they are rich and command, the reason lies in that they are the best, the most capable and therefore the legitimate bigwigs. And the price they have to pay for this recognition is being benevolent, that is, giving alms or making ‘donations’.

Contrary to what we might tend to think, this is not a cheap price at all, for in reality it is a servitude – the first servitude, the servitude of the one who desires to dominate and tries to convince us that his money and wealth are in reality virtues and personal excellence. There is no better way of grasping this deception, mother of absolutely all deceptions, than through the Spanish idiom ‘dar gato por liebre’, i.e. giving cat (money, wealth) as if it were hare (virtues and personal excellence).

And the first servitude is also – now it is as clear as day – the first corruption (we can thus see why Machiavelli, the anti-oligarchic thinker liberals cannot stomach, understood corruption as servitude) which then the oligarchs and their servants or managers spread all over society. This servitude is absolutely needed to buy the consent, and therefore the corruption, without which no real (i.e. lasting) power or domination can possibly exist, of the people.

But this is not merely a question of individual ‘donations’, blatant as they are, e.g. oligarchs ‘donate’ to major corporate news media for them to chant the oligarchs’ virtues and personal excellence. It is a whole system we can name the benevolent (or ‘charitable’ donations) system, which consists of a set of arrangements comprising at least the following three main pillars: tax reliefs and the very taxation regime, the funding of political parties, and the whole machinery which goes by the name of ‘philanthrocapitalism’. Corruption is thus massively spread over the state, official politics and the society.

Now, as can be easily imagined in this situation, the boundaries between donation and appropriation become totally blurred, so that donations are directly used in order to appropriate public services. That is how oligarchs gain ‘enormous power over the education, health and social policies of entire countries’, and this not only abroad, but at home, in the ‘free’ countries of the ‘free’ world, for instance, in the USA, where the supreme American oligarch (no, not Russian, American), Bill Gates, a fanatic advocate of the ‘privatisation’ of public education, is a major force in the destruction of the American public education system ‘through the promotion of charter schools’ – strange entities effectively private but ‘where the public continues to foot the bill for the school, but has no influence or say in how it is run.’

And in the UK, where, following the same model, Brexit-backing oligarchs have taken direct control of thousands of England’s schools – indeed British oligarchs (no, not Russian, British) have been for years now deploying their wealth and power to ‘shrink the state and take education out of public hands’. As the oligarchs themselves openly declare: ‘the ideal outcome of selling advice to the public sector’ (for living out of the public sector is what many of them, particularly Brexit supporters, do in the meantime) ‘is to make it so small that there would be ‘“hardly anything to consult upon”’.

But this should not be taken literally; actually, they long for ‘peerages’ and nobody has heard of any of these oligarchs rejecting the ‘baronies’ they are given on account of their abundant merits, i.e. being ‘donors’ of the party. Unfortunately for them, there is no way of undoing the fact that, both historically and in the present, every aristocracy (rule of the best) or claim to it is nothing but an oligarchy (rule of the few, which are always the rich, hence plutocracy: rule of the rich), which is nothing but a kleptocracy (rule of thieves).

The ‘freedom’ of oligarchs and celebrities: idiocy unchained

But the decisive appropriation and somehow the deepest corruption is that of language itself. The emblems of this appropriation and corruption are the terms ‘freedom’ and ‘liberal’, which we have already mentioned. It is the notion of ‘freedom’ embodied in the claim ‘I do as I please’, where the ‘I’ is the idiotic subject par excellence (‘idiot’ in the strict original sense), the petty despot devoid of ideas and bound by neither principles nor values or norms, whose agential capacities are driven by whims.

But there are many more appropriated and corrupted terms we cannot analyse here, e.g. ‘investment’ and derivatives (which I have always been in favour of taking away from economics and allocating to criminology), or ‘quality’, which has been used together with ‘feedback’ to destroy public services, particularly healthcare and education. The presupposed subject of ‘quality’ and ‘feedback’ is taken to be (not a patient or a student, but) a ‘customer’ or a ‘client’, that is, ‘customer’ or ‘client’ separated from the person and the thinking being, which is exactly a variant of the idiotic subject.

Doctors and nurses and teachers are supposed to please and satisfy this oligarch in miniature, as this idiotic subject can also be called. But what is most shocking – and here I have to say, ‘as usual’ – is the ease with which doctors and academics consent to and internalise this language, to the point that even those who are opposed to the devastating politics such terms carry, use them inadvertently in discourses explicitly opposed to what those terms represent, which shows how deeply corruption has penetrated subjectivities.

Celebrities believe they are ‘free’ to play the idiot, which is the role allocated to them in particular.

There are two privileged bearers of the idiotic subject of ‘freedom’, oligarchs and celebrities, and one non-privileged bearer, the obtuse gangs of fascists and useful idiots, Covid-19 negationists, and conspiratorialists we have seen demonstrating in the US and in other countries more recently.

Celebrities believe they are ‘free’ to play the idiot, which is the role allocated to them in particular. Aware of this and in deep need of recognition, they try to seize every opportunity, above all in terms of donating to good ‘causes’ which apparently are only ‘charitable’ causes and providing ‘advice’ on ‘good conduct’ through their platforms, to escape from idiocy and thereby gain recognition. We don’t know whether they obtain the latter, but what is certain is that, in doing that, celebrities introduce idiocy into the public affairs – this is undoubtedly the greatest service they render to the servile regime in which we live, hence the latter’s efforts to elevate celebrities to the status of its emblems.

While there are quite a few oligarchs who are also celebrities, the specifically oligarchic notion of ‘freedom’ is so nonsensical that in reality it is the defining trait of authoritarian attitudes – a major case of a ‘wooden iron’, to borrow a proverbial German oxymoron. And with so many authoritarian presidents and prime ministers proliferating in the world, it is everything but surprising to find as many manifestations of this imbecile and lethal notion of ‘freedom’ as we have seen during the pandemic, as though Covid-19 had also spread in the form of a covidiotic subject.

So, it is a difficult choice, but Bolsonaro’s claim ‘no one will hinder my right to come and go’, uttered while shaking hands and taking selfies with people in the streets, is surely among the best examples. Vargas Llosa (yes, the Nobel prize winner) is also among the regular providers of paradigmatic examples of this oligarchic notion of ‘freedom’, the last one being a manifesto against the lockdown measures and the ‘authoritarianism’ of the Spanish government promoted by his ‘Foundation for Freedom’ (an entity supported by betting business oligarchs who obviously champion the ‘freedom’ of the working-class youth without future to destroy their lives while becoming indebted in perpetuity) and signed by nefarious former presidents and other resentful petty tyrants.

The British prime minister, Boris Johnson, has also offered us some really excellent examples of that notion of ‘freedom’. For instance, in the post-Brexit trade speech in early February, when he bragged that, while the coronavirus has triggered ‘panic and a desire for market segregation’ in others, ‘humanity needs some government somewhere’ and ‘some country’ ready ‘to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange’, a saviour government of a saviour country (may this be the Brexit government of Brexit Britain?) which will guarantee ‘the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other’, and thereby vent what Adam Smith considered their inborn ‘propensity to truck, barter, and exchange’.

Boris Johnson felt compelled to observe that ‘we’re taking away the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go the pub’.

Six weeks later, when the prime minister finally seemed to understand that there was no point in continuing ‘buying and selling’ if the buyers and sellers were going to die, and had to lockdown the country, he still felt compelled to observe that ‘we’re taking away the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go the pub’, as though other peoples of the world who also love to go to pubs and bars could only do so by concession (this leaving aside the fact that no such ancient right has ever existed).

What we have here is an ugly cocktail of three fantasies: the fantasy of ‘free’ trade (which was and is never ‘free’ but an imposition, so this is ‘freedom’ as authoritarianism), the fantasy of individual ‘freedom’ (which is obviously the ‘freedom’ of the idiotic subject), and the fantasy of ‘superiority’ over other peoples, which provides the glue bringing all fantasies together – a sickening glue made up of a range of idiotic, bigoted and criminal identities comprising narcissism and nationalism, seasoned with different doses, depending on the situation and the political necessities of the moment, of classism, racism, misogynism and islamophobia, to name the most frequent condiments.

The UK government response to the pandemic: incompetence, immorality or both?

There can be not many doubts about what kind of politics a government with these credentials is bound to put in place against the coronavirus outbreak, and to do so instinctively: the politics of death (necropolitics), i.e. prioritise ‘the economy’ and let people die – in truth necropolitics is immanent to any regime of domination, all the more so when they are headed by authoritarian governments. In the UK necropolitics has three major branches.

First, a strategy whose name is ‘herd immunity’. Second, an inaugural speech whose meaning has largely been overlooked, the prime minister statement on coronavirus on 12 March 2020: ‘I must level with you’, Boris Johnson said, ‘level with the British public: many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time’. And third, with the easing of the restrictions on the lockdown, the class politics intrinsic to necropolitics is made manifest through a policy of vicious classism: calling on people ‘who can’t work from home’ to be ‘actively encouraged to go to work’, and this without any health and safety guarantees against the threat of the Covid-19, amounts to telling the working and most vulnerable sections of the population that they must risk their lives and eventually sacrifice them for the sake of some idiotic gods: big business and fat cats.

Given that herd immunity (supposedly ‘controlled’ spread of the virus), which by early April was still the government policy, is a totally wrong strategy from a scientific standpoint to confront the pandemic and minimise the death toll, the alternative this poses is whether the government is incompetent (since even from a narrow economic perceptive it is better to think in the medium and long-term and therefore try to strictly contain the spread of the virus and avoid or minimise a second wave), or it is immoral (since it accepts the sacrifice of tens of thousands of lives – the figures at the time oscillated between a quarter and half a million – to the idiotic gods), or – and this is the most likely hypothesis – it combines different doses of both things, incompetence and immorality. This would seem to clash, but in reality fits perfectly, with the attitude of the braggart who trades in bluster, bullshits and foretells good omen – an attitude which, together with the pre-set agenda, the idiotic agenda of ‘free’ trade, is the trademark of the Brexit government.

The pandemic as the predators’ feast, dutifully given by the government

And then there are the multiple murky businesses, often closely linked to two issues: behavioural manipulation and big data. Behind the former there is the ‘nudge unit’, a most bizarre technocratic entity (it used to be nested at the very heart of the UK government, in the Cabinet Office, but is now said to be ‘independent’ thereof), often presented as the ultimate in terms of ‘science’ when in reality it is rather old technical developments in what concerns the practice of domination in one of its key domains: cognitive-behavioural techniques of manipulation and modelling of people’s behaviour and affects.

Behind the latter there is in the first place the prime minister’s chief political adviser, Dominic Cummings. If we put those two issues together, as they actually are, then we surely have a major clue to begin to understand the obscure logic behind the murky businesses, e.g. advocacy of herd immunity and callous advise about the death toll, and the endless list of issues concerning the government Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), including its opaque composition, its obscure way of operating, and the weird repertoire of attendees to its meetings.

SAGE is supposed to be an independent body; all its worth for the country lies in that independence. Yet, the prime minister's chief adviser is a regular attendee of its meetings, and not only him, but the presence of some of his allies has also been revealed – business and Brexit-backing allies running or heavily involved in some of Cambridge Analytica’s parent, associate or descendant companies in the tech industry connecting the corporate-state surveillance complex with the private and military intelligence and security sector, and the behavioural-cognitive-military complex – it is, in brief, the business of domination in the digital age, which involves an ever more ‘seamless integration’ of the state with big tech corporations and explains why behind those unscrupulous mercenary companies there are always some big oligarchs and state agencies.

If Covid-19 data provided by people are so valuable it is precisely because they will be used to target people, extract information about their political orientation and preferences, and manipulate their conduct and decisions.

As an investigation by The Guardian has revealed, such companies include Faculty and Palantir, both involved in ‘processing large volumes of confidential UK patient information’ in ‘an “unprecedented” data-mining operation’ related to the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. What we have here is the oligarchic class that drove Brexit working closely with the global oligarchy to further the digital weaponry of domination.

Naturally these companies are going to access gigantic volumes of confidential UK patient information and data, including Covid-19 results and the information people provide in calls to NHS advice line 111, e.g. gender, postcode, symptoms, treatment. It is of course claimed that those data are anonymised and remain confidential and subject to strict ‘ethical’ norms, but such claims in the post-Snowden era can only be cynical through and through. If such data are so valuable it is precisely because they will be used to target people, extract information about their political orientation and preferences, and manipulate their conduct and decisions.

Then there is NHSX, a NHS subsidiary and in truth a trojan horse to ‘privatise’ the NHS, and this not only on account of the fact that it has contracted the aforementioned private companies to build the “Covid-19 datastore”, but also because NHSX is in charge of the NHS digital transformation, a process which has been, is being and will be done according to the oligarchic interests and designs of the managers driving it, that is, above all by making sure that neither healthcare (Hippocratic) nor public service principles and values interfere with the handling of healthcare as a commodity to be provided in such a way as to maximise the profits. Naturally NHSX not less than Faculty and Palantir will claim (this is part of the business) that what they do ‘for the NHS’ is ‘helping save lives’; but we know that they are the spearheads of domination in the digital age and the necropolitics that necessarily goes with it.

The fate of the NHS: the final blow or still in our hands?

‘Privatisation’ – let us clarify – does not only consist in selling a public service in a one-off operation, but is often carried out through changes promoted as ‘improvements’ which take place in a terrain already densely (but never sufficiently) populated by the idiotic subject, the subject trained to have a ‘what’s-in-it-for-me’ relation with anything public or common and in truth with everything good, truthful and beautiful – so well-trained, indeed, that it is unable to see the universality of the good, the beautiful and the truthful, and incapable of appreciating the necessity and goodness of what is public or common.

That terrain is also pervaded by techniques and procedures aimed at securing that people have a relation with public services restricted to the ‘what’s-in-it-for-me’ kind. For example, the FAQs technique, so seemingly innocuous, in reality acts as a methodical training tool to induce people to become indifferent to the public services they rely on and to relate to them only via the idiotic ‘what’s-in-it-for-me’ relation, thereby ensuring that people are not going to treat public services as their own, as services that belong to all and everyone and therefore must be cared for and defended by all and everyone.

We can thus see the extent to which all our public services, including healthcare and education, have already been largely and decisively ‘privatised’, i.e. corrupted as public services and captured by private interests. At stake here is not if or when, but how, for the processes of destruction and appropriation of public services will go on unless they are politically stopped. Thus, it is well-known since last November that the NHS is up for sale, that it was at the heart of the USA-UK ‘free’ trade negotiations last year, and nobody can doubt that it will come back to the negotiating table once negotiations resume, as they have already.

In order to figure out what is to be done to the NHS in the coming years we only need to look back at what has been done to it in the last ten years, the years of criminal austerity, although it has been only now with the pandemic outbreak that the full extent of the devastation intended and caused has been felt.

The endless list of brutalities includes the vicious cuts of staff and hospital beds and intensive care beds, the cutting into pieces of the NHS in order to make it more amenable to private appropriation, the neutering of the Health Protection Agency, and so on and on. No surprise then that the pandemic outbreak has found a country extremely exposed and debilitated, lacking healthcare staff and the most basic equipment, including ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE), to at least lessen its devastating impact – indeed this lack is so widespread, and the situation at the frontline so alarming at all levels, and what NHS staff have been told so outrageous that that we are left without words.

To top it all we have learnt that ‘healthcare professionals are being silenced and threatened with disciplinary action for speaking out about their work during the coronavirus outbreak’ – those are the same NHS staff for whom we have been clapping every Thursday, the same people we have consented to acclaim as heroes but – or is it because? – we have forgotten to devote a single thought to them and the conditions under which they work.

We have also neglected to ask ourselves why we need their heroism. So, we continue to clap, but who are we clapping for, the regime of domination which gags ‘our heroes’ and subjects them to deadly working conditions, or the speech-endowed healthcare workers who risk their lives every day in the front line as though there were no tomorrow?

The NHS was a beautiful, good and enduring collective achievement, indeed so much so that the Right has been trying to destroy it for forty years now and hasn’t still managed.

It is evident that we (particularly those of us who have been and are in lockdown) have to stop clapping for the criminal oligarchic regime in which we live and instead reclaim our public services, clap for a properly publicly funded NHS and therefore for dignified and properly paid healthcare professions – that would be a real homage to ‘our heroes’, particularly if we do something more than just clapping and join forces with them and organise to meet these demands.

Let us remind ourselves that the NHS was built, together with other central institutions of the welfare state, in a devastated country – victorious, happily so, but destroyed by almost six years of war. And it was a beautiful, good and enduring collective achievement, indeed so much so that the Right has been trying to destroy it for forty years now and hasn’t still managed!

What should we do?

The answer to that question is and can only be collective. What I would like to do here, by way of conclusion and trying to be attentive to the impressive determination of the huge number of struggles going on around the world (including strikes in almost all their varieties: rent strikes, labour strikes, wildcat strikes, walkouts, and also discussion spaces, manifestoes and declarations), is to highlight three aspects which seem to me fundamental to orientate the joint action whose necessity and urgency have been made clear above.

First of all, it is necessary to take the measure of the power we are faced with, for the oligarchy is a most formidable form of lasting power or domination. Not only does oligarchic power feature among the oldest forms of domination in human history, but – and this makes it unique – it has persisted across the most varied political regimes, historical periods and kinds of societies, from ancient despotism to classical democracy, from medieval to modern times, from ancient slavery to contemporary imperial capitalism, impervious to most historical and political transformations. It is a massive and fearsome power we underestimate at our peril.

A defining feature of that power is that it is deaf to words and reasons. Language for oligarchs and their servants is just another instrument of domination. We have just had the occasion to once again see how the braggarts shift from bluster and void optimism to insult and dehumanizing language as soon as they face opposition: as teachers and teaching unions questioned the return to school chaotic ‘plans’ for England due to the manifest lack of any basic health and safety standards and the consequent grave risks for teachers and children, ‘briefings to the Sunday papers had seen the resurrection of the “blob”’ – not just a name, but a mud-word used against the so-called ‘education establishment’, although this is not the only ‘establishment’ opposing the government: local and regional authorities are equally up in arms, while the nations have been for some time now.

It is unintelligible verbal monstrosities utilized against the political rivals and anyone who opposes the designs of the government in order to reduce them to that aberrant and revolting thing. Not only that, but this verbal mud is provided to the hate and blame media (and the social media algorithms, so not only the tabloids) in order for these media, major armed constituent of the wealth defence industry, to do what they are specialised in doing: brand and mark out for criminal vilification and dehumanisation selected groups which oppose the oligarchic appetites – groups ultimately made up of anyone defending principles and values and therefore committed to the use of reason and understanding.

To clarify further what this deafness means, let us evoke Machiavelli, who – after a lifelong trajectory of struggle for a free way of life and therefore against the oligarchy of his time – concluded that an oligarchy is a crazy (pazzo) and wicked (cattivo) ruler for whom there is no remedy other than the drastic one he refers to in his Discourses on Livy. Thus, being deaf to words and rational arguments (and therefore to science and expertise and de facto to common sense), this power reacts to force alone, e.g. to the collectively organised force of society.

The second aspect is about principles – indeed, this goes without saying in a world devoid of principles as is ours, a world which encourages us to live without ideas: ‘adapt, do not think’ is the motto of that world. In effect, if we want a better world, then it is evident that we have to affirm the basic, indeed the timeless principles of equality and liberty, justice and solidarity, sorority and fraternity. This political affirmation has to be real, that is, it has to bind us in our conduct and practices, which – after years of adaptation – may not go without saying. And, as these principles are universal, it is also necessary to specify the form universality will take at the level of different domains and professional practices.

The third and last aspect is about organisation, a very complicated matter, for we need to combine a very dynamic idea and practice of unity (unity of action, movement, strategy) with the continuous existence of a huge variety of local, sectoral, national and international(ist) struggles. Dynamic unity means that unity is constituted and takes place at all levels, so that it is not just (although it can also be) the unity of all these struggles.

Thus, rather than a state, unity is a joint action device which, guided by the above principles and drawing on existing unions, organisations and movements, can be applied in all directions and on all scales. This form of unity can be achieved around the idea of the ‘worker’ as generic humanity, beyond the immigrant for we are all immigrants, and polyvalent human, combining manual and intellectual labour.

All this, to do what? To radically transform our way of life. To begin with, to construct the public spaces at all levels we need in order to have a dignified social and collective, or simply political, life – public spaces which are also sites of struggle to be permanently occupied and defended. Only this striving, this labour and struggle, can guarantee immunity against the idiotic subject.

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