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Editorial ‘Greed is good’ politics does not sit well with a Covid-stricken public

DID Boris Johnson draw on a classical education at Eton and Oxford in mobilising the ancient Greek notion of irony to tell his back-bench MPs that Britain’s successful coronavirus rollout was down to those quintessential Tory values of “greed” and “capitalism”?

Or does he believe this stuff?

Whatever, he quickly realised that it was necessary to deploy a rhetorical device of classical antiquity to clothe his immediate realisation that, outside of his privileged circle, the opposite is generally held to be true.

But his words are taken to signify their literal meaning: “The reason we have the vaccine success is because of capitalism, because of greed, my friends.”

And because this does not sit well with a weary population on the anniversary of the first Covid-19 lockdown the Number 10 media operation played Johnson’s customary comedian shtick that it was a joke, as “lighthearted” and “off-the-cuff.”

The pretence is that his words were aimed at celebrating big pharma’s role in the vaccination programme when the reality is that private enterprise has spectacularly (and corruptly) failed while public-sector investment, universities and our NHS have made the difference.

Where parasitic capitalist greed has given us Serco’s test and trace and dozens of dodgy deals that enrich ministers’ friends, it is the values of public service, public investment and dispassionate scientific rigour that have made the vaccine rollout a success.

The government professes itself keen to play down tensions with the European Commission and diminish the threat of a vaccination war. 

In a brazen display of hypocrisy, Johnson told Number 10 press corps that “we in this country don’t believe in blockades of any kind of vaccines or vaccine material, that’s not something that this country would dream of engaging in.”

This from a government that, like the EU member states, deploys an active strategy of sanctions and blockades aimed at countries like Iran, China and Russia.

Johnson’s hasty retreat from his involuntary utterance illustrates just how sensitive ruling circles are about the ways in which the post-2008 financial crisis, the parliamentary corruption scandal and the shameless profiteering that marks the coronavirus crisis are energising a nationwide debate about values.

While millions make sacrifices to meet the social and collective goals that the lockdown entails, a numerically small but shockingly rich stratum sees the crisis as opportunity for even further enrichment.

It is against this background that we can understand the obscure manoeuvres around the AstraZeneca vaccine. 

When competition for big pharma’s mountainous profits are at stake there is no limit on the dirty tricks deployed by all manner of dark forces at play in the market for drugs.

When speaking with his tongue unguarded Johnson exemplifies what the North American liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith meant when he described the modern conservative “as engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”

Of course, conservative values don’t only express themselves in their classical form as a justification for the system that confers wealth and property on some and a lifetime of waged labour on others.

They also appear in the rampant individualism that is an alarming feature of 21st-century capitalism including — in this moment — the promotion of anti-vax and Covid conspiracy libertarianism that dovetails tightly with capitalist ideology.

Marx argued: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, ie the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”

Time is overdue for the working class to become the ruling class.

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