People in Melbourne line up for supplies before the curfew comes into effect (Image: AAP/Erik Anderson)

The last time your correspondent was in the path of a hurricane was in 2008, in Corpus Christi, Texas, where Ike was barreling through. It was aimed at Galveston, but they wouldn’t let us in, and so Corpus Christi was closest, the body of Christ spread along the coast, ready to suffer afresh.

There, as the storm approached, and avenues of tall palms lashed from side to side, I watched as people started to make preparations; shopkeepers dragged stuff inside and teams of people put down sandbags and boarded up windows.

I have never seen so many people move so fast, so collectively. It was like a movie sped up. Everyone moved with such focus.

There was a touch of that in the malls on Sunday afternoon, as Dan Xio Ping’s (that’s a new one, hey) announcement spread throughout the city. At Southland queues formed at the supermarkets, the craft stores and the books/games open stalls at the atrium. Jigsaws were going out the door – people had three or four under each arm. Etsy girls were five deep in the Primark equivalent.

There was what one hadn’t seen before; the slightest touch of fear and foreboding in people’s eyes, along with that same purposefulness I had seen in the path of that hurricane. It went beyond the silly toilet paper wars of the first phase, which had been a slaking of anxiety.

Now, people were neither aggro nor considerate. Just focused. How that will hold over six weeks remains to be seen.

The Monday announcement that most retail will close has really underscored the fact that this one city is going through a very singular process: an extreme lockdown, neither at the start of a process, nor during a situation of raging mass death. It has neither the possibility of total avoidance, nor the energy of panic to enforce it.

The question now becomes whether it can be maintained — not by security forces, but by our own internal discipline and commitment. If that cannot be achieved, then it seems doubtful that security enforcement in a non-totalitarian society could impose a regime of limited movement.

Say what you like about a government like, maybe, Vietnam’s, but they make the Trans run on time. I’m under no illusions about the capacity of some of our cops to be rough. I just doubt their capacity to do it efficiently.

We got into this mess not only because of Victoria’s unique rainbow bulldozer left neoliberalism, but because, well, everything at lower levels is just so slack.

You just see frontline workers all the time breaking basic protocols. Of course it was ever thus. The idea that ruthless efficiency will occur at a state level in response to a level of threat is a consoling myth gained from old World War II movies.

Everything is desperately improvised at some level. Yes, the Andrews government has responded with steadily greater degrees of clarity to the situation as it had unfolded.

But there has still been an eye to the spin and the image, especially in earlier stages. It’s the government’s lack of ability to impose strong measures, not their crypto-fascist demands that people wash their hands, that’s the problem.

Some of the earlier measures were authoritarian cosplay, a continuation of the government’s “normaltime” strategy to not be outflanked on law and order, when we had such a thing. That habit of mind continued into the emergency, and here we are. 

The Andrews government wanted above all to be a government of stability and order, to cement Labor as the natural party of government in Victoria, after the gift win of 2014. It now faces the very thing few Labo(u)r governments really want — not merely the opportunity, but the necessity to think and act radically, as reality itself moves to the “left” of the standard political settings. 

There is no way to avoid this now. To be insufficiently radical now would be destructive by inaction. For example, discussion of the hit that small businesses are going to take is being done as if they were in the path of a hurricane, to be knocked over by natural force.

Businesses can be saved by stronger measures on their dead costs. So take the commercial rent deal further, and abolish commercial rents for small businesses, especially retail, for the next two months.

Make the landlords apply for compensation, and only award it to those who can show genuine personal hardship arising. Commercial property holding firms should be the first entities to go broke in this, not the last.

Freeze business loans for two months for all businesses under $10 million, simultaneous with paid pandemic leave to workers. Really, there isn’t any such thing as “a business”. It’s an abstraction of various material processes, given legal form.

An event like COVID-19 simply disassembles that multi-levelled ensemble. Yes, some firms are going to go under, if their customers go to out-of-state suppliers. Yes, store-based retail will suffer in relation to online suppliers.

But as long as the government acts decisively to stop dead costs shambling on zombie-fashion, there is no reason why many, many businesses cannot simply go into hibernation and emerge afresh when demand re-emerges. With radical action, the government might emerge as an audacious hero from this.

A still more radical possibility would be to create a “co-operative” fund, which gives state loans and coverage to small businesses that want to convert to employee-run/owned co-ops.

That relieves burdened owners of obligations they can no longer fulfil, and keeps activity going — as co-op owned businesses can adapt their wages as demands and use state payments as a subsidy.

This happened in Greece during the 2010 crisis, and the new Syriza government extended legal protection to such operations. But, to adapt Churchill, Labo(u)r parties do the right, radical thing eventually, but only after trying everything else first.

No Labor government has been more determined to run a left neoliberal model than Andrews’. That’s exactly why they took this hit, and the more traditionally social democratic Arden government in NZ didn’t.

The Andrews-Pallas government may have wanted to surf forever on simple growth based international students, property spec, hospo and wage theft. None of that now applies, and we are on the edge of what one might call “emergency post-capitalism”. The virus may be like a hurricane, but there the analogy ends.

This is a human problem, with human solutions, and with audacity and boldness we can come out of it as a better society. Or we can just pile up the sandbags and wait for the deluge. 

Peter Fray

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