The novels of the 19th century Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli are little known today, with the exception of a passage from Sybil (1845) about the condition of England. Disraeli laments the existence of:
“Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws . . . . THE RICH AND THE POOR.”
This passage shaped the dominant strand of conservative political thinking in the UK until displaced by market libertarianism in the 1980s. Traditionally, conservatism sought to forge one nation, emphasizing the positive obligations of the rich to understand and relieve the conditions of the poor.
Disraeli was writing at a time of great social division and inequality. While his vision was not a radical one, it contributed towards the development of a broad consensus about the role of the state and the responsibilities of those who benefitted from an economic and social order towards those who did not. That consensus waxed and waned but was not seriously challenged until the economic crisis of the 1970s and the revival of the laissez-faire thinking that Disraeli opposed. The management of the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the hollowness of that alternative in policies that have been made by people with very narrow life experiences and imposed on others with whom there is ‘no intercourse and no sympathy’.
This indifference is as true of our scientific and medical elites as of our politicians and public servants. Although STEM disciplines have traditional been ladders of social mobility, we are seeing the fulfilment of Michael Young’s prediction that meritocracy would lead to the creation of a new elite that was just as unsympathetic to those who did not share its privileges. In some ways, Young suggested, it might even be worse because those privileges would be seen as justified by individual talent and application, rather than birth, so that those left behind would represent moral failure instead of historical accident. The emphasis on individual qualities establishes an elective affinity with the social sciences of individualism – behavioural psychological and economic sciences – rather than those of structure and culture – sociology and anthropology. While STEM leaders might not achieve their position via Eton and Oxford, their present status is disconnected from their origins and justified by the Darwinian competition that marks early careers in these fields.
From the beginning, pandemic management has been shaped by people who live in big houses with gardens for people who do not. Working from home is quite different when you have a study or home office compared with perching at a kitchen counter or banging knees on a dressing table. Reducing the frequency of food shopping is one thing when you have a larder, a freezer and a refrigerator, with sufficient capital to tie up in stock. What is it like for families in temporary housing where kitchens are shared and storage is one shelf in a room for sleeping and living shared by an adult and several children? If you are in that situation, or perhaps a member of a minority ethnic group in a crowded, multi-generational household, access to public open spaces is an essential not a luxury. A modeller may look at parks and beaches as random mixing and to be feared: the empirical social science of crowds has long-established that they are collections of small social groups that have limited interaction with each other.
Others have noted the way in which policymaking has been something of a boys’ club. Even more, it is a posh boy’s club. This goes a long way to explaining the prejudice against hairdressers, nail bars, beauty parlours and tattooists. All of these occupations are well used to working with high standards of health and safety, for other reasons, and would have been capable of faster adaptation than many businesses that were given priority in public policy. Their practitioners have years of experience in managing hazards – toxic chemicals, dusts or blood-borne infections such as HIV. They are the canaries in the mine about the disregard for the interests of women and the implicit puritanism that has marked much of the response. Of course, everyone can home school, carry out the invisible labour of queuing for shopping and put in a full shift of remote working without this having a disproportionate impact on women…The queues outside supermarkets and other food shops remind me of nothing so much as visits to the Soviet Union and Poland before 1989, except that the women are younger – the babushkas are shielding.
The puritanism is also apparent – people should not enjoy themselves during a national crisis but sit stoically staring at the four walls of their living rooms until released. This is fine if you have a living room, which many people in shared housing do not. Going to the park to play Frisbee with your housemates is essential for mental and physical health – not heedless frivolity. When furlough kicks in, topping up a suntan or picnicking in the country is as relevant as sitting in your room reading a morally improving work of literature.
And then there is the able-ism. The saloon bar science that justifies face coverings overlooks the substantial minority who have communication, mental health or other issues that prevent them from being worn. There may be exemptions in the legislation but these do not get equal prominence in the media strategy or advice to retailers. Anyone not covering their face is left exposed either to interpersonal conflict or to intrusive interrogations about their personal medical or psychological history. One-person at a time rules on entry to premises are insensitive to wheelchair users or people whose sensory disabilities require the presence of a companion. We might also add the lack of provision for those faith groups where men wear full beards. They may cover their mouth and nose but the imperfections of the fit underline the symbolic rather than the practical role of face coverings. Where is the recognition of diversity in contemporary societies?
‘Why can’t you just stick to the sociology?’ I get asked from time. There is a whole other answer about the nature and purpose of the sociological study of medicine, science and technology – but this topic is core sociology. It is about the way patrician elites make supposedly rational policies for ordinary people in ‘ignorance of their habits, thoughts and feelings’. It is the historic role of sociologists to call this out.