Jim Donaghey: Callous Incompetence, Corrupt Cronyism, Jealous Repression – One Year On, What Is The COVID State?

Anarchist Studies Blog, March 16, 2021

Last year, I wrote in this blog that the UK government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic crisis was one of ‘callous incompetence’. In hindsight, that was no surprise: their incompetence stemmed from the deliberate underfunding and privatisation of public health services; their callousness was baked-in to the structurally violent principles of Tory ‘austerity’. That analysis has been bolstered by the state’s successive mishandlings of the coronavirus crisis; instances of glaring ineptitude have been frequent, and business interests have been repeatedly and explicitly prioritised over the lives of elderly and vulnerable people. The results of this callous incompetence are now painfully clear, with the UK currently shamed by the fourth worst death toll in the world per head of population. The Petri dish of business-motivated social mixing spawned the B117 ‘British variant’ of Covid-19, which has a death rate that is up to 64% higher, resulting in thousands upon thousands more deaths. The UK government has blood on its hands, and Prime Minister Johnson himself is culpable for ‘gross negligence manslaughter’.

However, the UK government’s pandemic response has not been solely characterised by this clusterfuckery – a jealous guarding of state sovereignty has also been apparent in aspects of its Covid-19 response. Anarchist thinkers have long identified the jealousy inherent to the modern state; an exclusive sovereignty claimed against other nation states, secessionists, non-state geopolitical actors, and especially against independent organisation by the people themselves. Under neo-liberalism, the centrality of the state has been eroded and much of its productive capacity and governing power has been ceded to private corporations and supranational bodies. In a sense, the state no longer jealously guards its sovereignty, but hands it over willingly, acting as a ‘broker’ for capital and intervening to shape society to suit market interests. The Covid-19 crisis appears to confirm this ‘unjealous’ ceding of productive capacity, with the UK government handing out £24.4 billion to private corporations to carry out core services and meet essential needs (up to 20th February 2021). But of course, any premise of neo-liberal market competition has been absent during the crisis – this now-naked cronyism is only an augmented version of business-as-normal; a further blurring of the supposed distinction between state and capital. In fact, the crisis has enflamed the state’s most fundamental inherent jealousies, evidenced in attempts to co-opt and suppress the upwelling of community self-help initiatives that have autonomously addressed peoples’ needs during the crisis, and in its political policing of protest movements under draconian Covid legislation.

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