Charlotte Godziewski By: Charlotte Godziewski
Lecturer in Sociology and Policy
View profile and Diary

28 May 2020 : Heroic workers. Resilient retailers. Responsible consumers. Entitled Government Elites

Let’s have a look at some of the different subjects constructed by this horribly cruel and incompetent UK government amidst this crisis:

The Heroic Worker: Without a reliable system of protecting, testing and contact tracing in place, the first step of ‘reopening the economy’ has been to sacrifice blue collar workers and send them back to work. This has been justified drawing on ‘heroism’ rhetoric, as if forcing workers to risk their lives unnecessarily was something worth celebrating. The move to prematurely reopen schools also boils down to getting people back to work, rather than genuinely caring for pupils’ education. ‘Heroic workers’ are effectively forced to go back to work, forced to expose themselves to great health risks. Yet they are also personally responsible for not catching the disease, by ‘staying alert’.

The Resilient Small Retailer: Retailers will soon be able to reopen, which suggests they will soon be completely on their own. They are expected to be ‘resilient’. The use of the term ‘resilience’ is problematic, because in practice, it means they ought to be resourceful enough to find a way to survive without depending on the government, no matter what it takes. As has already been argued in the context of neoliberal austerity, invoking resilience forces people to adapt to an unsustainable system, rather than calling the system into question. Expecting retailers to be resilient boils down to disciplining and responsibilising them to adapt to unjust situations, rather than demand justice.

The Responsible Consumer: With retail reopening, we’re being encouraged to go shopping, still without any clear and wide-spread measures to do it safely. The idea is to ‘go out and spend’, to get the economy back up and running. Personally, months of lockdown made me realise how unnecessary much of the shopping I used to do really is. I think weaning myself off too much consumption is an unintended benefit of lockdown. Of course, consuming less needs to go along decommodification of labour, given that, at the moment, people’s livelihoods depend on other people consuming (that’s a topic for another day).

Ultimately, what is completely missing, is the social, the human. The whole lockdown-easing narrative revolves around workers, retailer, and consumers, all disciplined to keep the economy going while bearing all the responsibility for not contracting the disease. At the same time, we’re still not allowed to see friends and family in a socially distanced way. This says a lot about the government’s rationale, its complete disrespect for the social fabric of this country. It echoes Thatcher’s idea that there is no such thing as society, only individuals. This extremely atomised and purely transactional vision of society is inadequate in general, but even more so in a pandemic situation, where social protection and solidarity is crucial, and where (as the posters in some of the windows in my street state) we need to ‘think WE, not ME’. 

The Entitled Government Elites: With so much responsibility being distributed amongst individual heroic workers, resilient retailers, and responsible consumers, is there any responsibility left for those in power? Apparently not. In addition to being incompetent and incapable of putting in place necessary safety measures and clear guidance, our leadership also seem to consider themselves above the rules and expect us to grant them some kind of ‘exceptional status’. The fact that those currently in power do not have the population’s best interest at heart is not new, but perhaps their total disrespect for the population they govern has never been so blatantly obvious.

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