Politics is rooted in stories. The narratives we believe and remember are the ones that win. We saw this post-financial crash in the selective belt-tightening of the austerity story, we saw it in the Leave campaign’s tall tales of the EU, and we see it now with the COVID-19 pandemic. As the situation progresses, thoughts will increasingly turn to the future of our economy. It is crucial that we begin now to consider the story that will shape this future.
In his 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Christopher Booker* explores diverse stories including myths, fairy tales and famous novels to distil common underlying plots. One such plot that he finds recurring throughout Western storytelling is ‘Overcoming the Monster’. In this story pattern, there is a ‘superhuman embodiment of evil power’ threatening us, our community or even the entire world. The monster is eventually overthrown by a hero, ideally using some sort of special weapon gained along the way. It is recognisable in stories such as Theseus and the Minotaur, Beowulf, endless episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or James Bond. Whilst the monster is often a human or animal of sorts, in stories such as Camus’s The Plague we see disease take on a comparable role.
Our government is currently deploying the ‘Overcoming the Monster’ story to explain the pandemic and its impacts. ‘Defeat the coronavirus’ is used repetitiously throughout the daily press conferences. When the Prime Minister was hospitalised, his status as the hero was reinforced with Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab saying, ‘he’ll be back at the helm leading us through this crisis in short order’. We’re told that the government ‘will not flinch’ from overcoming the ‘invisible enemy’. The ‘special weapon’ is variously the antibody test, the vaccine, plasma transfusion or some combination of them all. This plot is politically useful: it firmly demarcates where the evil is (the virus) and where the good is (our heroic government). But if we allow it to continue, it will shape the future of our society and economy in deeply problematic ways. To see why, let’s take a look at who and what is being affected worst by the pandemic and its impacts on the UK.
Some of the workers worst affected by the UK experience of COVID-19 aren’t physically here but they are closely related to our economy. As consumer demand for clothing plummeted, major clothing brands including Primark, Matalan and Edinburgh Woollen Mill, cancelled billions of pounds’ worth of orders from factories in the Global South. The impact: the person who sewed your hems or stitched on your buttons is very likely on the verge of destitution right now. The Bangladeshi Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association announced that £2.4 billion of existing orders had been cancelled or suspended by western clothing brands, including UK ones. Pressure from the media and campaigners has seen some backtracking by Primark and others, but many UK companies have still made no commitment to pay.
In the ‘Overcoming the Monster’ version of events, the problem here is COVID-19 and its impact on the market. This is disingenuous. Globalised capitalism works by selecting the cheapest and most rights-deprived workforces to produce goods at extremely low cost under conditions that would be unacceptable in wealthier economies. Garment workers have been subject to poor terms and conditions, including poverty wages, all along. The fact that there is no protection from, or resilience to, shocks like the pandemic should come as no surprise: unjust treatment of the people making our goods is built into the DNA of our global economy. The virus has simply shown us how business as usual really operates.
Other examples abound. Sex workers are facing destitution. Is this because of the pandemic? No, it’s the because of the long-standing failure to recognise sex work as work, which means thousands of people – many of whom are mothers – are ineligible for the government’s emergency income support schemes. How about the NHS being on the brink? You would need to have lived under a rock for the past few years to think the pandemic is the driving cause of cracks in our health service. Chronic underfunding is its real disease – it would be better able to cope with this crisis if it had been nourished in previous years. British agriculture is begging for workers as its usual migrant workforce dries up. Why? Not because the pandemic has stopped travel, but because the sector has such poor conditions and wages that it’s unpalatable or infeasible to workers with other options, so it struggles to recruit from those already here. If international travel stopped but local pay and conditions were good, we wouldn’t be having headlines about fruit and veg left to rot in the fields. People of colour are being affected disproportionately by the pandemic in the UK. Why? Largely because of pre-existing inequalities. I could go on.
Monsters are usually conceived as very large – in fact, earlier meanings of the word relate to vast or extraordinary size. This enormity serves political purposes well: it blocks other aspects from view, such as those inequalities described above. It also obscures the bad decisions made by government at the early stages of the spread. The UK appears to be on course for the worst death rate in Europe. This is not because the monster facing us is more malevolent but because our hero politicians have not been quite so heroic. In Germany, for example, the early introduction of mass testing and responsive isolation are helping to produce a far lower death rate. The version of events that constructs COVID-19 as a monster posing equal threat to us all and which will be vanquished righteously by our government is just that: a construction. And it’s effective: in early April, the government had a net positive approval rating for the first time in nearly a decade.
Instead of allowing the monster tale to run amok, those who wish for a socially and economically just future must begin to tell a new tale. Booker’s distillation of the ‘Rebirth’ story can direct us. In the Rebirth narrative, the protagonist “is already in the state of living death” but does not realise it yet. Think of the miserly Scrooge in Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, comfortable in his cage of misanthropy and selfishness. He is shown the error of his ways by the three ghosts that visit him. Like those ghosts, the pandemic is showing us the entrenched injustices of our world. We must use its exposé to prevent the pandemic being deployed to maintain old power dynamics. As Dostoevsky puts it in the closing line of his own great ‘Rebirth’ tale, ‘Crime and Punishment’, we need “the beginning of a new story – the story of the gradual renewal of a man, the story of his gradual regeneration”.
*Yes, the same Booker who is a climate change denier – he also spent 34 years writing this rather more useful book.
Emily Kenway is a leading expert on modern slavery and human trafficking. As a former adviser to the UK’s first Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, she was at the heart of government action on modern slavery. She is the author of the forthcoming book The Truth About Modern Slavery (Pluto, 2021). She was a trustee of the Voice of Domestic Workers for three years and is chair of the board of the framing organisation the Public Interest Research Centre.