Is anybody really surprised by the news that a record 3.3 million Americans sought unemployment benefit in just the last week? Is anybody properly shocked by the realisation that so many of our fellow human beings had jobs that had absolutely no security should a crisis hit the US economy?
This isn’t so much a Great Reckoning (and, we can hope, doesn’t become a Whopping Big Depression) as it is a stark window on the reality of modern employment. We’ve spent decades changing the way we work; undermining many of those once-vital support structures that ensured that the human component wasn’t the first to go when trouble struck. It’s not just zero-hours contacts, though they are the kinds of job that show the problem in its most condensed form. Any work where there’s no collective effort to protect each other was liable to see the same.
Thatcherism is often cited as a cause but that’s just a convenient term for what was a cultural shift some decades that appealed to base human emotions. Instead of thinking of the group, a whole generation of workers were taught to think about themselves. “I can’t possibly strike,” said a person I know recently. “I’ve simply got too much work to do!”
The result is a situation where workers rely on the morality of company owners to do the right thing and though many are stepping up and showing leadership (a bad word for something that’s actually basic human decency), many aren’t.
The many that aren’t are precisely those companies we’d have suspected before the crisis hit. In other words, none of this should surprise us. We’ve been vaguely aware of the predicament, though not so much to have done anything about it. And if capitalism is now going to survive, “doing the right thing” can no longer be left to chance. Nor can it be left to governments to decide. The seemingly insurmountable problem is that our politics must change. The Left is too much in thrall to the idealised collective, the Right entirely held captive by the idealised individual. We need to move beyond lazy reductions that accuse those of us in the middle of defending the greedy on one side, or the workshy on the other.
How can a collective be made to work to protect the interests of the individual? That, I suspect, is going to be the tale of our political future for many years to come.