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  • Writer's pictureD. Hunter

We must resist authoritarianism, not despite this crisis but especially because of it.

Jason Biffa These feel like exceptional times, with Covid-19 joining a list of recent humanitarian and natural disasters that have threatened mass casualties and societal break-down. Like the war, floods and fires that have raged globally in the last few months it needs to be taken very seriously, and people should follow health experts advice. We also need to think carefully about how we face disaster, and how we make societal changes quickly. Too many people are bearing the brunt of this forced distancing, with police action increasingly punishing people for being poor or marginalised. We should be rejecting the individualism and capitalist libertarianism that is currently sweeping the USA, and bubbling in the UK, in favour of collectivism and solidarity. We must also counter the allure of authoritarianism, not just because it is politically wrong, but because it is the road to failure. As the death toll has risen, and the mutual aid and volunteering groups have knuckled down for the long haul of meeting the material needs of the community outside of state infrastructure, the conversation has moved on to how to curtail the actions of the people still refusing to abide by health care rules. Discourse on climate change is more likely to blame working class people using single use plastics as readily as middle class people flying to Europe for the weekend or governments approving airport runways and coal mines. Similarly, people having a quick lie down on the grass in the park have taken equal responsibility for the death toll as the Cheltenham races going ahead or the governments underfunding of the NHS. The current changes are undoubtedly harming the poorest and most marginalised in society, yet they are the ones facing the the wrath of police and the press for trying to survive. Anxiety and depression has spiked drastically throughout this pandemic,[1] exacerbated by financial worries. There is an increased threat of people self harming or worse because they can’t get any time outside, especially with so much stress around money, cancelled plans and the health and the very survival of ourselves and our loved ones. Fresh air, the feeling of open sky and distance from people in your household are all clearly beneficial to maintaining people’s mental health. While combatting this virus is seen as a common endeavour, an individual’s mental health crisis is still seen by some as a personal struggle and failing. The increase in deaths from suicide will be treated as collateral damage despite many being avoidable with more care and compassion with how people are kept distant from one another. When the social shut down was first proposed, I spoke to an A&E doctor who knew that it would result in a wave of domestic and gender based violence, which has become a horrific reality. Families who have previously had little crossover between work, school and social life are suddenly forced to spend almost every minute together. Not everyone has the luxury of separate social spaces or gardens and garages to escape to. This pressure and with nowhere to escape to makes the risk of domestic violence and gender based violence much higher. People fleeing domestic violence, or even leaving the house for some respite, are faced with the prospect of having to justify being out of their home to police or others. Police in Cornwall stopped a man taking a drive because he needed space from his wife and three children, and they decided shaming him on twitter and the national press was appropriate. I really wonder what they think is the logical conclusion to making men stay at home when they can feel tempers rising instead of taking themselves out of the situation? To be clear there is no excuse for domestic violence or abuse, and people must take responsibility for their own actions. However punishing someone who has possibly tried to remove themselves from an inflamed situation has deadly consequences, with domestic killings more than doubling since the social shut down began. [2] If someone uses drugs, and that use is an addiction, the criminalisation of leaving the home becomes much more dangerous and harsh. Normal supply routes have been disrupted, the increased police presence twinned and a reduction in operating harm reduction services have exacerbated what was already a severe public health emergence. There’s already evidence the supply of heroin in Scotland has been tainted with Fentanyl, the deadly synthetic opioid. [3] Getting onto methadone prescriptions right now is tough, and there’s stories of methadone users saving some of their dose to share amongst people who can’t get their own supply. Prohibition of drugs was already causing drug users to live their lives isolated from society and this social shut down has pushed them even further away. At the start of this crisis health professionals and experts in the field were brought out to explain social distancing, and the need for strict rules and sacrifices. The justification for these quite extreme measures were made as clear as possible, and the requests were framed as necessary to prevent deaths and protect people most unacceptable to the virus. Since then, government briefings and news coverage has been an increasingly politician only affair, with the momentum of the state blustering past the scientific facts. No one with any sort of expert knowledge has been compelled to actually explain why sunbathing is worse than running, because it doesn’t make any sense. So why is the fight against sunbathing seen as such a vital component in stopping this virus? It was the first major flaunt of the government and police rules, and it allowed the blame to be easily shifted onto the actions of a few selfish people. Some think might seem easier if everyone just followed all of the rules, and those that didn’t were dealt with fairly but robustly. It’s a pretty scary time to start trusting people to just do the right thing. A popular solution is that if people don’t follow the rules, then maybe we need harsher responses, heavier fines, threats of prison. Just start forcing everyone to stay at home. Here’s the thing, I’m an anarchist because I think authoritarianism is a shit way to run society, not just because it isn’t very nice. Fascism doesn’t work, and it needs to keep being said. Fascism breeds in a time of crisis, it’s never surged when things are alright. It uses fear of chaos and the illusion of order to draw people to it’s cause, and justifies it’s harsh measures as a proportionate response to the current threat. Now I don’t believe that this virus is going to bring about some sort of fascist new world order, or that martial law is coming, but the urge to use authoritarian measures to combat this virus are not only bad for society; it won’t work, and you don’t need to be an anarchist to see that. For the state, and it’s relatively small number of enforcers, to have control over millions of people, it has to pretend it’s got everything under control. They know where you are, what you’re doing, and they’re doing a brilliant job of combatting this virus. Comparisons to Nineteen Eighty-Four are cliché I know, but every time I hear a politician bragging about the number of tests they’ve carried out I can’t help thinking about the regular news updates of record factory output. You can’t have the police locking people up or fining them without prejudice if you also think the governments not doing the best job it can. So for an authoritarian response to legitimise itself, the first thing it needs to do is crush any suggestion that it’s doing a bad job. The current Labour Party seem to be falling over themselves to help them do this by failing to even remotely criticise their clear failings. You can also hope as much as you want that since we’ve all given up pubs, clubs, and football the police have given up racism, classism, ablism and prejudice against travellers but it’s not likely is it. This virus was spread by the rich a powerful first and foremost, travelling the globe. I heard that the Edinburgh Medical School is apparently suffering because so many went on the same skiing trip to the the alps. Yet it is the poorest and most marginalised in the country that are facing heavy handed approaches from the police. People with the least responsibility and the least agency or resources to protect themselves.

A typical response on twitter to liberal discussion of civil liberties and authoritarianism. Liberal reaction to this has been to try and find the right level of fascism that they can stomach, which seems to be quite a large dose. Their deliberation about where on they want to sit on a dichotomy between selfish libertarianism and fascism is always tinged with the assumption that fascism would probably sort this all out pretty quickly but it’s not plan A. They buy into the myth that Mussolini made the trains run on time, that fascism is effective but unpalatable. Globally authoritarian regimes and responses are doing terribly to protect people from this virus. The Turkish state refused to take measures that would harm it’s economy, and then when it did so, acted by suddenly enacting a 48 hour curfew which caused so much panic buying and people moving around that the streets were filled. Their rates of infection have increased faster than any other G20 country. For the shut down, isolation and social distancing to actually work, it needs to be sustainable. We’re going to have to do this for a long time. Covid-19 needs to be people’s number one concern. If it isn’t, then whatever is higher on the list is the problem we have to be solving. If someone has no food, or electricity, we need to make their home somewhere they can live. If you feel like the state and society would leave you to starve then staying in one place becomes a much scarier prospect. If someone is sharing a living space with someone who’s violent or controlling, then we need to help them get safety. Almost everyone’s mental health is suffering because of this virus, but if someone is stuck inside their small flat with no access to the outdoors then they need to be able to get some fresh air, some sunshine, see people around them without the fear and anxiety of police harassment. These are big society wide problems that existed long before coronavirus, and will be around long after this crisis. They won’t go away by cops shouting[4], pushing, kicking in doors[5], fining[6] and jailing people[7]. Compassionate community accountability, solidarity, an end to the neo-liberal selfishness that permeates society won’t come over night. There is lots of work to do and simply pretending otherwise isn’t helpful, but a police state is a lazy attempt at a shortcut, and it will fail. This virus is such a serious situation that we can’t leave it to the cops to solve, they’ll fuck it up. Mutual aid, responsibility to our communities and solidarity are the only way to save lives in this crisis. We need to stick to our politics now because if they are only for times of calm and plenty and we turn to the authoritarian state in times of crisis, then those politics are meaningless. [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7]

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