Looking for a representative example of a left-wing commentator’s response to Toby Young’s treatise on the dispensability of old people to which I might refer I lighted upon Kevin McKenna’s column in The National. I could hardly have chosen better. I could hardly have chosen worse. Better, if what was wanted was a heartfelt polemic on the heartlessness of a socio-economic system which supposing itself entirely rational blithely embraces the unreasonable. Worse, if what was required was an even vaguely rational critique of that system’s unreasonableness.
Don’t get me wrong! I gladly accept – nay insist! – that there is a place for emotion in politics. Politics is about people, essentially. People have emotions. They function on the basis of their emotions as well as their intellect. We may not always get the balance right, but we tend to recognise it when we do. The point at which heart and head find a semblance of balance we call ‘reasonable’. The effort to find that point we call ‘reasonableness’. It stands to reason, therefore, that a political philosophy which seeks to exclude intuition in favour of calculation must forfeit some part of it’s reasonableness. Its relevance to real people in the real world must be questionable at best.
To my mind, attempts to purge our politics of human feelings and instincts have diminished it and us. Ironically, it has left us with a politics of fear – the most powerful of all emotions. Subtract from the sum of what makes us human that which we dream of and you are left only with what we’re afraid of. Every great social reform began with a dream. All social progress has historically been driven by aspiration and hope. No great or positive change was ever born of fear. If progressive politics has slowed, stopped or been reversed – as might well be argued – it is because we have disconnected our politics from our dreams. We have descended into a politics in which to be called a dreamer is to be degraded, diminished and dismissed.
When Alex Salmond referred to the restoration of Scotland’s independence as the dream that will never die he triggered ridicule and revulsion in those disposed to regard dreams as a political disease. But his words touched something in the hearts and minds of people who, consciously of otherwise, long for a society which has a place for dreamers and a politics which has space for dreams. I suspect Toby Young falls into the former category and Kevin McKenna the latter. I am more likely to be found in Mr McKenna’s virtual company than Mr Young’s. But I might not be entirely comfortable in either.
I haven’t read the article in which Toby Young argues inter alia that “Spending £350 billion to prolong the lives of a few hundred thousand mostly elderly people is an irresponsible use of taxpayers’ money”. But I certainly recognise the ideology which informs such sentiments – if that word can be applied other than sardonically. I have to say that I agree with the sentiment, even as I deplore the lack of sentimentality. Toby Young’s statement is essentially correct. But, taken literally, it is quite unreasonable.
Before I explain my own response to Toby Young’s remark I have to comment on the way Kevin McKenna has reacted as, unfortunately, I suspect it will be fairly typical of the reaction of those on the left of Scottish politics. Where Toby Young’s attitude – as exemplified by that one remark – is unreasonable because it eschews emotion, Kevin McKenna’s response is unreasonable because it abandon’s reason almost entirely in favour of something approaching hysterical mawkishness.
Let’s start with the claim that “it’s possible, even at this stage, to divine two distinct currents of thought emerging amid our attempts to extract meaning from this apocalypse”. Well, maybe it is possible to simplify “currents of thought” in this way. But it is inevitably an oversimplification such as must make analysis suspect. To his credit, Kevin McKenna acknowledges that the abstraction may misrepresent Toby Young’s full argument.
I’ve probably rendered Young a disservice here by selectively quoting from what is actually a well-argued essay on why we should apply pure market forces to the care dilemma at the heart of coronavirus. Later, for instance, he goes on to say the economic downturn which is certain to follow coronavirus will also claim a great many lives and that we can mitigate this by taking hard decisions about the worth of human beings right now. Predictably, he has been condemned as inhuman for holding such views. Yet they are merely the distillation of pure, neoliberalism and, as such, have already found a home in this Conservative administration.
But having acknowledged that a less rigorously pragmatic approach to the “care dilemma” would also be likely to cause suffering and cost lives, Kevin McKenna glosses over this to focus exclusively on the human cost of what he characterises as “the distillation of pure, neoliberalism” implied by his selected quotes from Toby Young’s article. Apparently, that cost is inherently less if it is the consequence of an approach which can hold its head high as it proclaims its humanity.
I am also perplexed, and not a little irked, by Kevin McKenna’s claim that we are all striving to “extract meaning from this apocalypse”. By which I suppose him to mean that we are trying to understand the Covid-19 in something more than a strictly scientific, epidemiological sense. However, no understanding of this pandemic in any sense is aided by applying the term “apocalypse”. A term which means complete and final destruction of the world, but which may through usage be taken to imply something slightly less… well… apocalyptic. The reality is that, while extremely serious, the coronavirus pandemic is very, very far short of being an “apocalypse”. The word is not remotely appropriate. The virus is not threatening to eliminate anything close to a significant part of the world’s population. The pandemic is necessarily massively disruptive. But it is not massively lethal. Every avoidable early death is a tragedy. But we surely have to keep a sense of proportion.
Has Kevin never watched any disaster movies? Is he unaware of the likely reaction to news of the impending Armageddon? As a rule, it starts raining men, women and children as people jump off tall buildings to escape what the anticipate will be a more protracted and painful doom. Start an apocalypse panic and it’s highly likely that more people will be kill by falling bodies than could ever be killed by either the pandemic or its aftermath.
And what the hell does he mean by “this apocalypse”? There can be only one! You can’t send it back because it doesn’t come up to expectations raised by watching the movie ‘2012’ eighteen times. “We were promised continents crumbling into the ocean and what do we get? A dry cough and a runny nose!”.
Hands up everybody who’s trying to “extract meaning” from all of this. Not you, Archbishop! Sorry, Your Holiness, but no you don’t get 1.3 billion votes. Nobody’s sitting around philosophising about the pandemic. They’re too busy whining about being deprived of their football and their Saturday nights down the club. Or standing in the middle of their own 4-metre section of the queue at Asda hoping their’s some milk left by the time they’re allowed in as the 12 litres they panic-bought has gone off and they just can’t drink tea without milk.
The ‘ordinary people’ Kevin McKenna purports to be defending against the heartless Toby Youngs of this world don’t “extract meaning” from disasters, they build conspiracy theories around them. Or they just get on with their lives as best they can.
Kevin McKenna condemns a “market forces” solution to the care dilemma because it is “lacking in humanity”. But rather than outline a more humane solution he attacks neoliberal orthodoxy using reductio ad absurdum and a caricature involving exploding wheelchairs. He is undoubtedly right about the “arrogance and complacency of unearned privilege” But it is not only market-obsessives who treat life like a commodity. More always being better but, at a push, tradeable. His reaction to the suggestion that some life may be jettisoned in order to keep the economic system ticking over implies that he sees life much in the same way. Maybe it’s not the jettisoning of life that’s the issue. Maybe its the transaction that’s the problem. Perhaps it’s not more humanity that’s wanted, but a better deal.
Which brings me to my explanation of why I think Toby Young is right – at least to some extent. Supposing we take Kevin McKenna’s preferred approach and sacrifice cold calculation for warm and fuzzy sentiment. With one difference. We take account of how the old people themselves feel about it. We put their emotions into the equation. We see it from their perspective.
I am not particularly old. But hoping to see my 70th birthday this year, I could be said to be more old than young – by a significant margin. Kevin introduces his mother in support of his case so I’m assuming he’ll be OK with others personalising the debate in a similar way. Let’s suppose the virus was as deadly as hysterical sensationalists want it to be. Not apocalyptic. Because then the care dilemma becomes all but meaningless as everybody ends up just as dead as everybody else. (Yes! |I know there could still be a care dilemma relating to the manner of the dying. But gimme a break, eh!) Now suppose that there is a vaccine. But that the vaccine is in short supply. Suppose it came down to a choice between me and my son. Do you imagine I would hesitate to trade whatever years I might have remaining to save my child’s life? Put like that, the calculation is easy. And it is a calculation. It is a trade. It is not significantly different from what Toby Young seemed to suggest.
We might deck out this calculation in all the finery of noble sacrifice and what have you, but under it all will remain the calculation that my son’s life is worth more than mine. What is wrong with Toby Young’s point is not that it is lacking in humanity but that it is made in an unreasonable way. By discounting human emotions it forfeits reasonableness. Make the same argument in a way which takes account of human emotion and it starts to seem reasonable.
The problem with neoliberal orthodoxy and market forces-obsession is not that they are inhumane but that they are unreasonable. It is unreasonable to imagine human emotion can be excluded from our politics. It is unreasonable to suppose a socio-economic system that takes no account of human emotions can possibly be stable. It is unreasonable to rely on the willingness of people to subordinate their feelings to market forces. It is unreasonable to mistake those market forces for a natural phenomenon which left to its own devices will optimally regulate human society. It is unreasonable to think market forces are or ever can be left to their own devices.
It is unreasonable to present the care dilemma as a false choice between two options defined by market forces. It is unreasonable to insist that care my only be given or withheld. It is unreasonable to dismiss without thought the possibility that care might be shared. It is unreasonable to present the care dilemma solely as a matter of supply and demand rather than a question of distribution.
It is, for reasons which I hope would be apparent even to Toby Young, unreasonable to champion a system which prioritises exponential accumulation over equitable distribution. It is unreasonable to the point of insanity to suppose that such a system might be sustainable.
That’s a lot of unreasonableness for an ideology which claims superiority on the basis of its rationality. It is the unreasonableness of that ideology that is its weakness. The inhumanity is a a product or a symptom of the unreasonableness. Toby Young is right. But let’s be reasonable.
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