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The right has perfected making people expendable – but a coronavirus recession will take it further than ever

Remain cautious about this new embrace of liberal economics in response to the outbreak – it will likely be over before you know it

Mareile Pfannebecker,James A. Smith
Friday 13 March 2020 12:40 GMT
Up to 10,000 people in UK infected with coronavirus, officials say

The £30bn in the Budget to fight both coronavirus and a new recession has been met with breathless talk of political realignment. After bailing out their banks, western governments responded to the financial crisis of 2008 with a severe – and economically illiterate – tightening of the public purse-strings.

Today, the direction of travel on the right couldn’t appear more different. From Rishi Sunak’s Keynesian largesse and promise to “make sure that our safety net remains strong enough to fall back on” to Trump’s plans to spend his way out of the crisis, right-wing governments on both sides of the Atlantic appear to be preparing an expansionary economic response to the coming downturn.

Yet as the virus has spread, so have murmurs on the right of what sounds oddly like enthusiasm, hard to reconcile with this new appearance of humanist welfarism: CNBC News editor Rick Santelli has suggested that the US encourage the disease to quickly “spread through the population” in order to minimise economic uncertainty; the Telegraph’s Jeremy Warner affected manful resignation about a “cull” of the unproductive elderly; Boris Johnson flirted with “taking it on the chin” last week, and has been accused of prioritising the views of behaviourists and eugenics-adjacent “assorted weirdos” over medical expertise in his stance on deferring containment.

The right has changed economic tack, in other words, but this needn’t stop them from carrying the selective empathy, social sadism, and the withdrawal of protections that characterised austerity into the new regime of expansionist economic policy.

In our book, Work Want Work: Labour and Desire at the End of Capitalism, we show how governments since the financial crash have not merely cut funding to the welfare system, but have used such measures as a lever to remove inconvenient parts of the population from the official economy and politics altogether. The big spending commitments of the Tory Budget are tantamount to an admission of how poorly Britain has recovered from the last recession, and that austerity was as counterproductive as it was cruel. But the motivations of the right in the period since 2008 were never solely about cutting public spending for its own sake.

Benefits claimants, for example, had been fined for infractions (such as voluntarily leaving a job) since the start of the welfare state. Yet the coalition government’s 2012 reforms extended such sanctions to single parents, the long-term sick and the disabled, and increasingly focussed on “internal” infractions such as claimants’ administrative errors. The result was an expansion of a caste of people neither in work nor on benefits, who have simply been expelled from the economy altogether.

The routine use of benefit sanctions – generally meaning the withdrawal of an individual’s entire livelihood – is inconsistent with a belief in the liberal state’s responsibility to ensure a baseline living standard for those within it. Yet this innovation is typical of the right’s behaviour since the last financial crisis. The effectively ongoing Windrush scandal and making Shamima Begum stateless are part of the same pattern. On the American right, this logic is now replicated on an international level, as whole countries and regions are spoken of as “sacrifice zones”, to be abandoned to climate change and pollution.

While Trump and Johnson’s response to a new recession are anything but austere, their measures in no way preclude continuing with this logic. The Tory Budget stopped short of anything that might alter the precarious employment status of those in the gig economy, who are unentitled to statutory sick pay. The promise to speed up Universal Credit payments for those forced onto benefits by coronavirus simply admits that slow payments are already a deliberate disciplining feature of the normal system. Trump’s travel ban on Europeans (arbitrarily excluding the UK), meanwhile, is an iteration of that already trialled for Muslim-majority countries, an opportunistic extension of the power of the state to eject aliens from its borders.

'60 per cent' of public need to contract coronavirus for herd immunity to take effect

Both US and UK spending programmes are also environmentally regressive: Johnson has pledged 4,000 miles of new road and no rise in fuel duty, while Trump is pushing for federal aid for oil and gas companies. Instead of seizing the crisis and crash in oil prices to push for a more environmentally sustainable economy, both are using the state’s new largesse to protect polluters – guaranteeing yet more environmental “sacrifice zones” to come.

We can only cautiously welcome the right’s abandonment of its economic hawkishness in response to the coronavirus and hope that it does indeed extend into any coming financial crisis. But we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking the eugenic and sacrificial fantasies some on the right let slip in the face of the pandemic couldn’t be reconciled with its new “anti-austerity” policies.

Mareile Pfannebecker and James Smith are authors of Work want work: Labour and desire at the end of capitalism

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