When the pandemic hit socialist politics collapsed. The left became a Zoomocracy of the privileged. We happily worked from home. Principles were abandoned. The power of the state to lockdown was celebrated. Our ‘fight’ – or rather our whinging Facebook posting and tweeting – was to extend lockdown. Civil liberties and the right to protest were cast aside. Border controls were praised.
We shed crocodile tears for those who could not work from home including those who brought stuff to our doors. The highest form of class struggle was a Zoom or Microsoft Teams meeting. Internationalism meant having a Zoom speaker from India or Africa because we sure as hell didn’t want them and their infected bodies coming here.
The scale of collapse bears comparison with that of 1914 when the international left folded in the face of the challenge of war. One explanation then was that these policies reflected the interests of a privileged layer – the labour aristocracy. Perhaps the same is true today. It is not a labour aristocracy bought off by super profits. It is a privileged, better paid and educated white collar layer – the Labour Zoomocracy.
The Trade Union Zoomocrats
Socialists have always supported trade unionism as a basic element in protecting workers. We have also recognised that trade unions are doubled edged. They can become a sectional force interested in improving the situation of their members even at the expense of workers as a whole.
In 2020 there were 6.6 million members of unions – around 24% of the workforce. Only 2.6 million are in the private sector – just 13% of the workforce. The big battalions today are the public sector workers where some 4 million are in unions. This includes half of all employees in education. The figure is just 10% for the low paid as a whole. And for workers in hospitality only 4% are unionised.
Just as in the nineteenth century when unions were made up of the most skilled workers so today 30% of people with a degree are union members – more than twice as high as those without degrees. One third of those with supervisory jobs are unionised – a higher share than the people they supervise. Even 23% of managers are unionised.
When the pandemic hit many of these trade unionists were able to work from home. Union radicals gave little thought to what this might mean for others. Most people did not work from home. If they had there would have been no one to supply us with energy. Factories would have been empty, warehouses shut, shop shelves unstacked with no one at the tills. And no one from a supermarket, Amazon, Uber or Deliveroo would have come to our doors.
There is a sectionalist hierarchy within the workplace too. In education there was far more concern about teachers than teaching assistants and cleaners who were more risk. Even in the health service the focus was on doctors and nurses rather then the less organised, less well paid and more vulnerable porters and cleaners.
The Left Zoomocracy
The same pattern has been evident amongst those active politically. Socialists once went to the people. Now they run from them. I once asked an old Trotskyist who fought in North Africa in the Second World War if he had ever thought of being a conscientious objector. His answer was blunt – you always fight from where your class is.
The majority of the organised left seem to have decided that ‘the class’ is at home working on full pay or furloughed there. It is not. Only the privileged layer is doing this. Just as with the unions it is people from this layer who also make up the Labour Party and the groups to the left of it. The most recent study shows that there are few differences in the social characteristics of members of UK labour and other parties. 77% come from the top 3 social groups ABC1. Labour members tend to be middle aged and white. Only gender separates them from the others.
It is just as bad in the small organisations to the left of Labour. The active political left is becoming what Thomas Piketty calls, a Brahmin group. We have no self-perception of what this means. We boast about our virtue. We sneer at covid-idiots. Yet we seem unable to politically reflect on the extent to which privilege moulds our lives too.
Dumping on the Class
One person’s risk-minimised life is another person’s risk-maxmised life. The pandemic has been a class act in which most socialists have been on the wrong side socially and politically – risk minimising their own situation. The poorer you are the harder you have been hit by the pandemic. This can be seen in deaths. It can be seen in illness. It can be seen in access to help. Feeling ill? You can take a doctor’s call at home if you are a Labour Zoomocrat. It is harder if you are working in a warehouse or driving a van.
The collateral damage from the lockdown too is unequal. Middle class kids may suffer a bit but poor working-class kids have suffer a lot. Gender equality? It has been women as workers, wives and mothers who have carried the bigger burden. Race, ethnicity and covid? Its ok – if you are a Labour Zoomocrat you can always salve your conscience by being nice to the BAME driver who knocks at your door.
What did you do in 2020-2021 people in the future will ask? Saying we stayed at home, saved a lot of money, had our shopping delivered, and used Zoom to fight for a better world will not endear us to our descendants.