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More than just a game: building common sense in a pandemic

And everybody knows that the Plague is coming
Everybody knows that it’s moving fast
Everybody knows that the naked man and woman
Are just a shining artifact of the past

(Leonard Cohen, ‘Everybody Knows’)

As the Omicron strain brought the spread of Covid-19 in Australia to new heights in the run-up to Christmas, Scott Morrison came out with one of his more remarkable political statements of the last few years:

Individuals and communities need to take action as well. There will be a much greater level of self-regulation when we deal with the volume of cases that are likely to occur in the weeks and months ahead.

Ostensibly a response to demands for Federal mask mandates, this statement was interpreted as a rehashing of the broken-record conservative trope about ‘personal responsibility’. In fact, it says much more than that.

First of all, it implies a protective response exercised not at the individual level, but at the communal, which is far from the level that conservatives would most readily appeal to. Secondly, it could have been lifted straight out of a speech directed at the Business Council of Australia. ‘Self-regulation’ is quite often corporate code for taking self-serving action, or no action at all, in response to a problem that might otherwise invite government regulation, all under the guise of setting and following respectable norms. Yet it requires a significant level of resourcing, organisation and consensus that is most certainly present among the managerial class, but not among civil society, broadly speaking.

In fact, Morrison’s words are a telling re-hash of the well-worn concept of ‘common sense’. Slavoj Žižek frames and contextualises the significance of common sense in a passage worth quoting at length:

There was a similar problem during the chaotic post-Soviet years of Yeltsin’s rule in Russia. Although the legal rules were known, and were largely the same as under the Soviet Union, the complex network of implicit, unwritten rules, which sustained the entire social edifice, disintegrated. In the Soviet Union, if you wanted better hospital treatment, say, or a new apartment, if you had a complaint against the authorities, were summoned to court or wanted your child to be accepted at a top school, you knew the implicit rules. You understood whom to address or bribe, and what you could or couldn’t do. After the collapse of Soviet power, one of the most frustrating aspects of daily life for ordinary people was that these unwritten rules became seriously blurred.

This dimension to social and political life is well-theorised but not always taken seriously. Antonio Gramsci saw the concept of ‘common sense’ as applying not only to rules but also to values, understandings and worldviews, all of which constitute an important battleground in the class struggle. He saw the task of building authority as involving the conscious creation of ‘good sense’, an explicit and coherent philosophy of human flourishing, that would over time, through education, demonstration and propaganda, be accepted as the ‘common sense’.

Implicit in this account is that ‘good sense’ should not be seen as something standing above, or separate from, ‘common sense’. Each arises as an interpretation of the best and worst aspects of our material conditions. Accordingly, as reckless as the Coalition’s policies have been, it would be a mistake to fully attribute blame for the skyrocketing cases at their feet, or those of their most committed followers. Any universal politics must acknowledge our common complicity and power in creating this state of affairs, albeit to different degrees. So what can be kept from this ethos of self-regulation, and what can be salvaged?

 

Cynicism contagion

In past statements regarding the pandemic response, Morrison has used the concept ‘common sense’ to proclaim that it is up to ‘Australians’ to decide what constitutes essential and non-essential travel and activities, and to assert the impropriety of panic-buying. There is a certain cynicism to this discourse, as it makes Morrison’s government appear responsible while maintaining a certain vagueness as to the principles at play, thereby preserving for the government a space of deniability against criticism. As in Zizek’s illustration of how unwritten rules functioned in late Soviet Russia, in the absence of a ‘good sense’ set of principles, ‘common sense’ has effectively become about the negotiation of dissonance and contradiction in service of one’s interests.

This has played out in quite unique ways during the pandemic as the situation has become increasingly anarchic, which makes Morrison’s late appeal to ‘self-regulation’ all the more perplexing. Early in the pandemic, the WHO and other health authorities made the unfortunate misstep of advising people that wearing masks was not necessary as there was inconclusive proof of its effectiveness. This not only concealed the true reason behind this advice, which was that mask production at that stage could not have met universal demand, but it went against the common-sense assumption that mask wearing could be quite effective, and the advice was not long after altered accordingly.

Among other factors, this set the stage for governments to treat expert health advice not as dogma to be strictly observed, but rather as guidelines to be loosely interpreted, and generally in accordance with existing priorities (that is to say, economic imperatives). And when it goes against existing priorities, to be marginalised in favour of the idea that it is individuals affected by the pandemic response who know best.

This was certainly the way many state politicians deflected questions during pandemic press conferences. The most perverse example of this is the countless cases of elected officials and office holders flaunting lockdown rules with impunity, particularly during the 2020 holiday season. The underlying justification for such acts did not need to be stated, but we may assume it went something like this: it is common sense that an individual travelling in a private vehicle between two family properties would not cause a health crisis. Until, of course, it does. Though few cases have been as overt as the UK ministers and public servants implicated in the ‘Partygate’ scandal, following which Boris Johnson coolly stated that nobody told him that the garden party would break the rules, the cynicism inherent in this logic plays the same function.

Sean Kelly, in his recent portrait of the PM, describes Scott Morrison’s outlook on politics as a game in which he negotiates unspoken rules to curry favour with the public and within his ruling coalition. For a while, writes Kelly, the rules were quite simple: ‘if things go wrong, express regret and share the blame around; distract from criticism by making your own announcement; make an ad; do a photo op; shake hands.’ Morrison’s own playbook took him out of touch with reality, as when, during his holiday in the midst of the 2020 bushfire season, he told a journalist ‘I don’t hold a hose, mate.’ However, there was a hint of truth in this ill-conceived (and ill-received) statement—that it is unreasonable for the public to expect that one individual can exert control over or be held responsible for such a widespread disaster.

Political theorist Wendy Brown points out how, in neoclassical economics, homo oeconomicus, or the modern economic subject supposed to act purely out of rationally maximising their self-interest, is a construct whose existence has been scarcely substantiated in any of the literature. In other words, it is an open secret that economic ideology does not rely on the existence of such a subject, but on the idea that society may be structured around this construct. The ‘common sense’ of rationally maximising one’s self-interest, in turn, is predominantly an abstraction that neoclassical economists flexibly and selectively invoke in support of otherwise unjustifiable arguments.

Likewise, homo pandemicus is nowhere to be seen, for they are a mere fantasy. To begin with, there have been many instances of conflicting guidance, including school attendance, mask wearing and vaccination. Additionally, the extent to which conforming with such guidance requires a change or sacrifice in one’s behaviour and lifestyle has depended to a great amount on the extent of each community’s material resources. In other words, ‘common sense’ is not so common. Most significantly, it has been near-impossible to follow the demands of life in our neoliberal society while being completely rule-abiding and taking ‘personal responsibility’ in regards to the needs of public health, at least without severely compromising one’s wellbeing or interests. We would completely reject the logic behind the actions of Morrison and his fellow ideologues if we didn’t on some level accept it in our own lives. The practice of bending and occasionally breaking Covid rules has been so widespread that I know few people who could sincerely say they have faithfully observed all the rules, or never had to face conflicting guidance, and I would hazard to say the same is true of most people. This is especially true now that numbers are rapidly rising, along with test waiting times, and the definitions of ‘close’ and ‘casual’ contacts have been changing. This is our own pandemic common sense, and it normalises cognitive dissonance on a profound level. In the words of Sean Kelly, ‘[t]his is a performance, he is telling us; it is part of the game; you know the rules, and so do I.’

The various state press conferences were pandemic response theatre par excellence. Every morning, these conferences would dominate our news cycle despite the fact that the talking points were, for the most part, completely unchanging. Heavily invested in producing a common sense that would cure us of dreadful uncertainty, or justify whatever personal measures we were deciding to take, we would spend so many hours analysing the banalities of politicians’ statements and interpreting minute details in social media posts. And so we felt as if we were engaging, or exercising our power through one of the few remaining political channels. This was especially true when it came to the idea that such conferences were a useful tool for holding politicians accountable, as if Gladys Berejiklian deflecting questions about corruption investigations were what led to her downfall. All we were doing was submitting to a monocultural political discourse that revolved around no more than a handful of policy questions, and implicitly accepting that our lives should follow the same rules as this spectacle. To quote Sean Kelly once again,

[t]his is because the consequences of treating it as anything other than a game are too demanding … so once we have started acting as though it is a game, it is better to forget the alternative entirely. A reminder that politics is not a game is not only discomfiting but condemning, pointing out that we have been acting trivially – living trivial lives, as trivial people – all this time.

 

Democracy is more than a game, and our lives are at stake

The best response to Morrison’s latest iteration of the ‘common sense’ trope is to take it more seriously than Morrison himself. It is to ask—what material and cultural conditions are required for individuals and communities to take effective action? What level of organisation and authority are required for civil society to construct a good sense that functions as self-regulation? Even if rules will inevitably be bent and broken, we can hold ourselves to much higher standards.

In an Overland piece on radical democracy published while New South Wales and Victoria were in lockdown, Jeff Sparrow writes:

A radical response to Covid means the self-organisation of working people: in their unions, in their universities and schools, and in their communities. Such a response would unleash the extraordinary creativity of ordinary men and women to find new ways to keep each other safe. It would rest on employees deciding for themselves whether their industries could or should operate or close down; it would entail neighbourhood groups providing mutual aid; it would refocus the entire economy on people’s basic needs.

Early in the pandemic, there were many impassioned efforts by those on the left to help those most vulnerable and disadvantaged through mutual aid organisations. The obvious problem with this was that generally such efforts require much logistical and communicative work with a vital interpersonal dimension that was precluded by the imperative to socially distance. Of course, solutions arose out of the ‘extraordinary creativity of ordinary men and women’, but in the absence of the complex digital infrastructures such as those that were elsewhere being deployed for private use by e-commerce companies, it required an unrealistic amount of work. Inevitably, halfway through the first lockdown, such groups began showing widespread signs of burnout. It wasn’t long before much of the conversation around ensuring wellbeing shifted focus towards mental health, a discourse that, as I have argued before, may be disempowering to individuals and communities.

The government could have fostered and assisted such efforts in the same way that it gave handouts to businesses. But for that to happen, such groups would have had to form coalitions capable of demanding such politics, and of articulating the universal significance of such efforts as a secondary safety net. There were significant attempts at this, for instance by the Sydney Policy Lab and the Sydney Alliance, which hosted roundtables for a broad range of civil society organisations. Yet they lacked the capacity to turn such efforts into any kind of exercise in mass democracy or capacity-building. All that remains are small NGO initiatives, community newsletters, information-gathering projects, and a renewed spirit to make helpful posts in community social media groups or contribute to community recycling programs and pantries. Greater ambition is required for such efforts to influence the common sense that enables and restricts people’s lives during these pandemic times.

This is not to say that grassroots efforts are only useful or sustainable as long as they influence government institutions and policies. Rather, for such efforts to be unified and coherent at scale, they would have to function within the spaces and modalities normally reserved for government institutions today, and with the authority to command great resources and manage a range of communities. To imagine certain organisations asking people to take pledges to take rapid antigen tests regularly, to avoid shopping centres or pubs, or at the very least wear masks even when not required, requires us to contend with the sheer logistical effort required to materially support communities who seek to act accordingly. Ultimately, building common sense is a matter of constructing public authority, both as an idea and as material organisation.

Only in this manner can common sense be removed from its privatised form as ‘individual responsibility’ under neoliberal ideology, to the kind that can support effective, democratic governance. This would engender a bottom-up rather than top-down relationship between communities and government organisations, where the former do not merely pick up the slacks when cracks appear in the latter, but themselves foster resilient social systems with a vision of people’s needs and how to provide for them. It is remarkable how much this vision has been lost as the pandemic has gone on.

For all their shortcomings, Covid press conferences represented shrewd organisation in delivering a message that would appease many different interest groups while largely maintaining the status quo, and meaningful exercises in building authority around individual leaders. For this reason, they were so effective at sustaining a monoculture that obscured any political or social questions that challenged the status quo, and any groups concerned with such questions. While it is easy to attribute this to the Coalition’s cynical style of politics, such strategies rely on modes of governance that are today embedded across many institutions. More recently, among the official advice of NSW Health was the following statement:

People are asked to continue to use common sense in limiting large household gatherings and gather outdoors where possible

While on the face of it, this appears to provide a degree of pragmatism that would allow people to follow such advice, there is very little social consensus to draw on when applying such ‘common sense’. In fact, this advice relies on an already undemocratic authority for its content. The implicit assumption is that ‘common sense’ must already exist because the government previously put out particular rules that people, for the most part, followed.

Democratising authority would mean devolving this level of politics to a pluralism of interests and organisations with a social foundation. ATAGI represents a meaningful example of this, especially where its opinions on healthy policy that ran counter to government decisions. Where this happens, informed dissent goes from being a personal whim or special interest to a public good. I got my own booster vaccine early, based not on government advice but on ATAGI advice, at a centre (not to be named) where the workers administered boosters not based on strict eligibility requirements, but largely as people themselves saw fit. The centre would not have gained the community’s trust to operate on this basis if it was not also one of the main service providers for a local disadvantaged community.

The more perverse failures of Morrison and the Coalition lay bare the narcissistic core of their ideology—that, by virtue of being in power, they are the best at playing this game and they get to set its rules. However destructive this ideology is, it is a fool’s errand to continue repeating this critique over and over and expecting a change in government, or in this style of government. The only way beyond this ideology and the widespread cynicism it creates is to rehabilitate our communal power. Ultimately, self-regulation and ‘common sense’ represent one of the most important meanings of the word democracy. At this level, democracy is much more than a game of how much we can transgress the dictates of public health—it is our communal consciousness, the layer through which we process and adapt to the many dictates our material world presents us with. There is no sidestepping this level of politics; the only way is through.

Overland’s Friday Features project is supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund. 

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Daniel Zola is a writer, activist and lawyer based in Sydney.

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Comments

  1. ‘The most perverse example of this is the countless cases of elected officials and office holders flaunting lockdown rules with impunity’
    Arrogance?
    Hubris?
    Or do they know something we don’t know?
    The ‘flaunting of rules’ by those in authority has been a worldwide phenomena (Boris has taken a battering over it).

  2. Common sense? Phew! Where do you start (with Marx?) and where do you end (with Gramsci?). Good if you could get common sense up and working without going via those historical outposts, and without adherents not thinking that if something is common then it is not very sensible, and without preaching common sense tenets to the converted only. Personally I’d like a fresh new term which means the same stuff you have outlined. But who cares what I think (not even me)?!

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