I don't know if you have felt the same this week, but maybe you've also started to feel a familiar kind of anxiety? I'm not talking of the anxiety of contracting Covid 19, specifically, or an anxiety directly corresponding to whether you are fortunate enough to be able to stay at home or not. But an anxiety that has been generated by a set of dynamics that appear have been (re)employed since Johnson's Sunday evening address to the nation. Amidst a confusion, which almost seems to have been intentional, there are many signifiers leading to 'divide and rule'. There's a weighty sensation upon our lungs. This isn't the virus, but a vague feeling of being dragged, prematurely, back to 'business as usual'; and it seems that it is being channelled by spreading a 'Negative Solidarity', or, when we tell teachers to be 'hero's', a 'back-handed schadenfreude'.
In recent history we seem to find it easy to feel a sense of schadenfreude towards groups of workers like teachers. Whether we individually share these sentiments, or just collectively engage with them through the likes of Tabloid headlines, I think this "it's your time to become 'an hero' now" narrative we see being peddled by The Daily Mail, is an example of a 'back-handed schadenfreude', where becoming an 'hero', risking your life, is a kind of comeuppance. The term 'negative solidarity', roughly explained, is a collective desire not to work together to improve our lot, reduce working hours, etc, but to scapegoat those who seem to be getting an easier ride than the rest of us (which, of course, teacher's are weirdly always said to have).
Although this post on the blog 'Splintering bone ashes', predates the near total dominance of social media in life for the decade that followed it, it helps us understand 'negative solidarity' in relation to what we'd normally call the 'post-industrial' or 'neoliberal' era:
"More than mere indifference to worker agitations, negative solidarity is an aggressively enraged sense of injustice, committed to the idea that, because I must endure increasingly austere working conditions (wage freezes, loss of benefits, declining pension pot, erasure of job security and increasing precarity) then everyone else must too. Negative solidarity can be seen as a close relation to the kind of ‘lottery thinking’ the underpins the most pernicious variants of the American Dream. In lottery thinking we get a kind of inverted Rawlsian anti-justice- rather than considering the likelihood of achieving material success in an unequal society highly unlikely and therefore preferring a more equal one, instead the psychology of the million-to-one shot prevails. Since I will inevitably be wealthy in the future, this line of thinking runs, I will ensure that the conditions when I become wealthy will be as advantageous to me as possible, even though on a balance of realistic probabilities this course of action will in fact be likely to be entirely against my own interests. More than lottery thinking, which is inherently (if misguidedly) aspirational in nature, negative solidarity is actively and aggressively anti-aspirational, utterly negative in the most childish fashion, and drives a blatant “race-to-the bottom”.
Of course, by 'childish' Splintering Bone Ashes isn't questioning our present-day behaviour as a Johnson-esqe figure may do, and so exploit, in a headmaster-like address to the nation (as Russell Brand recently brought attention to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGpehPsZP2Q&t=627s ), he is talking about behavioural reflexes that human beings employ in a state of assumed helplessness, and powerlessness to improve their predicament.
Mark Fisher, whose 'capitalist realism' now almost infamously gives diagnosis to the cultural realities explained above, said that the "others should suffer as we do....slogan of negative solidarity..." arises from a place where one can no longer "...imagine any escape from the immiseration of work."
However, after 7 weeks of a semi-shutdown of 'normal' functioning society, brought about by this pandemic, an 'escape from the immiseration of work' seems very imaginable. Of course, this period has been awful for many people who have had no choice but to work, or live in poor areas (the poorest sections of society, in general), but, because millions of staff have been furloughed, basically being paid by the government, and the overall impact of the work/life daily grind on the physical and emotional geography (if that's even a term!) of the nation, we have been momentarily gifted, by accident alone, the chance to see an exit from a reality, which itself offered only one kind of exit: extinction.
In many conversations it now seems polite to agree "we can't go back to 'normal'", even if we don't broach the subject of what it was about yesterday's 'normal' we think was problematic.
However, the political forces that are most invested in keeping reality how it was, are fearful, because such seemingly passive sentiment is a big problem for them. They can see that new opportunities to organise society are making themselves visible during this semi-lockdown, and 'negative solidarity' is, I think, one of the best tools to utilise to convince people to go back to the same old shit that works so well for the them.
Because, we don't just internalise our negative solidarity judgements, we internalise them. The 'back-handed schadenfreude' aimed at the soon-to-be 'hero' (and sick?) teachers in The Daily Mail, and many other places, stirs an aching feeling of responsibility/duty inside all of us: we too must take it on ourselves to put ourselves in danger of contracting Covid 19 for the purpose of working as hard, and as miserably as others. This is the upcoming psychological 'war' (if that's the best way to describe it?): a gigantic public relations effort to guilt us back to work, to set us against one another, in a mass 'workers' vs 'shirkers' battle, that will be far more divisive that the one aimed at the unemployed in the 2010s austerity project, because this divide goes right through the heart of so-called 'respectable' society.
I argue that it is not just wise to resist, but to address, and share sentiment, relating to the sheer impact this (inner) conflict will likely have upon our mental health.