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Mind the (Power) Gap: Expectations in a time of limbo

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Unsplash: Kyle Glenn

"The first duty of a State is to see that every child born therein shall be well housed, clothed, fed and educated [...] in order to the effecting this, the Government must have authority over the people of which we now do not so much as dream." John Ruskin, 1853.

If the coronavirus outbreak feels like Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland remake, we must wait to see what happens when Alice reaches the end of that long, dark tunnel. Underneath our new state of exceptionalism, the UK has long-standing issues. The Council of Europe's recent report on social justice did not, I assume, plan to compete with pandemic headlines, yet its contents make for chilling reading nonetheless.

In the blink of an eye, models of the relationship between the state and individuals - be it etatism, neoliberalism, state capitalism, neo-Keynesianism or any combination of these - are replaced by naked pragmatism, a crass combination of desperate PR podium politics, hasty public policy and feet dragging designed to protect business first, before citizenry.

Business data will eventually reveal who gained from the fallout

The formula is borderless. From Trump to Bolsonaro, Macron to Salvini, tardy, brash briefings barely paper over the cracks of weak policies. UK rental eviction applications are already soaring, with profiteering on the financial markets wasting no time. This pandemic is not immune to monetisation and there are no sacred cows.

On a global scale, vulnerable groups, namely the low-paid and the working poor, are painfully visible as the first to be affected when the tide went out, followed closely by the self-employed. We find ourselves operating within a new geo-politics where negative impact is borderless. On the flipside, business data will eventually reveal who gained from the fallout - the supertechs, Amazon, food chains, big pharma and private owners of 'temporarily' re-nationalised railways.

But back to that Council of Europe report. The UK is named and shamed in a number of areas, notably youth justice, maternity pay, child benefit and protection for women migrants. It provides yet more evidence that, contained within decades of environmental disaster warnings, there lies the necessary prerequisite for hyper-commercialisation - a flagrant disregard for social rights.

But looking now through a coronavirus lens, a new social rights deficit perspective starts to emerge. As China reports a rise in domestic violence, with lockdowns creating a global nightmare scenario of non-escape from dangerous spaces, the UK follows soon after, with an announcement of similar findings from Beverley Hughes, Greater Manchester's deputy mayor for policing and crime.

What are the prospects for a future state-individual contract? The fundamental question is: where can trust be placed? At least two world leaders are proven misleaders of public information; one heading for re-election, both with currently high popularity ratings, seemingly unaffected by their leading of their nations' pandemic response - or, more accurately, the handing over of it to scientists.

This warps any sense of how trust is defined, largely through lack of public debate. Could citizen assemblies be mobilised to scrutinise the post-virus machinery of public administration? Lack of understanding of, and interest in, governmental systems and party politics is more dangerous than any virus, as it allows vast manipulation, even of an educated electorate.

Scrutiny and accountability of government business has, unsurprisingly, accelerated over the past weeks. Bodies such as the Centre for Public Scrutiny provide off-the-shelf procedures. However, little airing is being given to system change. An alliance of progressive, structure-shaking actors with rapid tactics to match its myriad ideologies, needs to act swiftly.

Meanwhile, the media individualises the crisis. We could be arrested if we leave our homes, whilst governments passing trillions of dollars to the private sector do so with little scrutiny by the press or parliament. Coverage of the migrant crisis remains high, yet little is reported of the Cuban and Chinese medics who recently arrived in Northern Italy to help the stricken region.

Ruskin provided the world with clear views and expectations of what the state should do in our name in an era of rapid industrialisation and pre-universal suffrage. The revelation that post-capitalism creates multiple layers of minority groups, to the extent that they begin to emerge as a majority, is now stark. It's no longer an academic discussion. Economic shocks and mass civic ruptures are nothing new, but the shifting power deficit, based on sheer numbers, certainly is.

Julia Moore

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