flinders-street-station
(Image: AAP/James Ross)

The COVID-19 lockdowns that have taken various forms over the last six months represent one of the most radical transformations of everyday life by the state in human history. Nothing really compares to it.

The lockdowns and quarantines during the plague years of the Middle Ages still obliged large households to function, farming to occur, etc. The ghettoing and immuration of Jewish and other communities still saw daily life continue within those walls.

People starved in the million during the two-year siege of Leningrad in World War II – but still worked, walked in the street, visited, hugged, held.

The state has reached into the centre of everyday life and smashed its atoms. One has to look to extreme puritan societies, such as those of the 17th century, or cults, or the ’60s/’70s counterculture communes, to find examples where people have both consented to, and complied with, the reconstruction of the way we live from moment to moment. 

Of course in Australia, that only applies to Melbourne at the moment, and for those not living inside the dome, it is worth saying how extraordinary it is. The winter sky is grey, the streets are deserted, those struggling against the wind are in masks, and the messaging on the ghost trains are straight out of Orwell. “Staying apart keeps us together” a chirpy voice announces.

But the Orwellian aspect is mere outer appearance. We understand why this is, and we consent to its general form. 

That was the big mistake the right made, attacking “Dictator Dan” on the libertarian premise that we saw freedom as merely individual right.

Australians have never been libertarians; we’re a garrison state that became a corporatist semi-social democracy. We’ve always understood that collective action guarantees positive freedom.

We know why we’re doing what we’re doing, and not least of COVID-19’s effects has been to further expose the IPA as an alien cult, taken over by the chino Taliban, subsisting on Gina’s money — and consequently unable to steer themselves effectively. 

But the fact that we have consented to these measures — which may well return to Sydney in a few weeks — doesn’t mean we’ll be able to stick to them. Melbourne is now an experimental zone to see how much it is possible to suspend the basic sociality that knots us together before we start to crack.

Nowhere else in the world, so far, that I can see, has gone back into a lockdown more austere than the first.

The reason we are doing it, it must be remembered, is because we are aiming high, to not only limit the number of deaths, but to make the mortality gap between the low-risk and the high-risk as narrow as possible.

That is a progressive aim, a noble one, and it made the right’s politics more visible as a nihilism. If the manner of that has been regressive — the cop-led hard lockdown of nine Melbourne public housing towers showed Labor’s traditional disdain for the poor, economically below the home-owning worker-family — then that had to be fought within a support for the wider project. 

The crucial question now, and what we are about to find out, is whether it is humanly possible to maintain this degree of interruption of who we are — a group-living, multi-sensory species of social mammals, with a need for repeated reconnection — or whether such a consented-to regime becomes, beyond a certain point, simply impossible to maintain.

If that’s the case, then hairy-chested talk of locking down harder is idle, and simply desperate politicians prevaricating to fill the awkward silence.

Should the lockdown crack, then it will crack exponentially, a social-psychological spread that mirrors the virus’ social-biological action.

Two then four then eight in a hundred different places will breach it, because they will be driven by our deepest social needs — to love, to touch, to explain, as the poet John Ashbery has it. Penalties will become unenforceable.

How ironic that the libertarian right might get what they want, due to the very truth they deny about human nature — that we are social, entwined, and other defining, prior to being any sort of individual at all.

Should it be the case that repeated mid-level lockdown is simply not possible, then Melbourne will know it before anyone, and will have something to tell the world.

What’s happening here should really be mass-documented for future use. The strategy of eradication may or may not be viable epidemiologically.

But in any case it is being advocated by people of a somewhat technocratic lean, who are treating human behaviour and desire as capable of infinite redirection — a product in part of the social-constructionist mindset which underlies progressivism (and the “socialist” left of the Andrews government), and which is as foolish as the right’s individualism.

We need to plan for a post-lockdown arrangement that is as socially just — or as least socially unjust — as possible. That would mean rapid material changes to aged care, with governments abandoning their malign neglect in favour of de facto state co-ordination of the whole sector.

It means the unions must push for jobs guarantees, income support and the right-to-refuse-workplace-return of high-risk workers, lest a forced return to work become a death sentence, landing on the chronically ill.

It needs above all a clear-eyed assessment of our place, as a natural being with a limited capacity for determining our own fate or behaviour, in a world that is indifferent to our hopes or beliefs about what it owes us. Which is nothing at all.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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