What’s in a saying? Debunking five lexical myths in the age of coronavirus

Stuart Bennett examines a selection of everyday sayings and exposes their falsehood in the context of social and economic inequality illuminated by the coronavirus.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shaken the foundations of Western society and, with it, all those old adages we seemingly take as cast-iron law. The virus has exposed the inefficiencies and inconsistencies that lie at the heart of the liberal-democratic form and its capitalist economic structures. This is apparent in the ways in which we talk about politics, economics and society. Certain maxims by which we used to live have gone out the window. And though this pandemic does offer an opportunity to create something new in the aftermath, it also presents us with the very real threat that things can get worse. The harbingers of a more difficult tomorrow will be the new everyday sayings we adopt, and we must be aware of them.

  1. “Live within our means”

A slogan that has been parroted endlessly since the 2007/2008 financial meltdown, used as the rallying cry for deeper cuts to public spending and an end to ‘cradle to grave’ welfarism. The most recent financial crisis was an opportunity for neoliberal politicians, business leaders and economists to finish what Thatcher, Regan, Pinochet et al started decades ago. So successful were the austerity years that this phrase “we must live within our means” has firmly become part of the zeitgeist. Media coverage of the last two general elections in the UK was permeated with endless vox pops of middle-aged voters in ‘Labour towns’ decrying their party’s leader for wanting to increase public spending: “how is he going to pay for it?!”

In one fell swoop, the pandemic has prompted not just the UK government, but countless others around the world to get out the chequebook. Here, the Treasury is guaranteeing 80% of everyone’s wage, providing unprecedented support for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)and successfully encouraging the banking industry to grant homeowners temporary “holidays” from their mortgage repayments. While far from perfect (where is the assistance for renters?), the response has been swift and — crucially —expensive. The pandemic has shown up the baselessness of treating the public finances like a household budget.

  1. “These issues are complex”

Similar to the adage above, “[insert issue here] is too complex” has also been debunked. This is a particularly popular saying of those in positions of power and those who support them. “We can’t just stick the homeless in hotels and empty houses. Homelessness is more complex than that”. “We can’t just limit personal vehicle use to combat pollution. Environmental issues are far more complex than that”. “We can’t expect businesses to allow people to work flexibly and from home. Employment issues are too complex for that”. And yet, when push came to shove, the homeless were housed, people were warned against frivolous travel and businesses were forced to allow homeworking, all for the greater good.

  1. The “invisible hand” guarantees the most efficient allocation of resources

It’s not just neoliberal policymaking that is taking a battering of mighty proportions, but that spectre that haunts provides for us all – the invisible hand of the free market – has been shown up for what it really is: a fiction. In the West we are fed the same old, tired scare stories of what life was like behind the iron curtain, or what it currently is like in Cuba. Imagine having to queue for hours to get into a shop which rations basic foodstuffs like milk, bread and eggs, only to get into the shop to find out the shelves are empty. A truly grim existence, and also what I got up to at the weekend.

  1. “Footballers are self-interested idiots”

Admittedly, this is one that I didn’t see coming. There are some very necessary conversations that need to be had about the vast wages on offer to the best professional footballers in this world. However, I did not think we’d be having those conversations in the midst of a pandemic. Nor did I think those conversations would be started by the government’s health secretary as he updates the country on how many people have died since the previous day. And I certainly didn’t anticipate the footballers themselves fighting fire with fire while simultaneously exposing the flawed government response to the outbreak through altruistic giving and sharp op eds in national newspapers. Yet, here we are. Writing in his Sunday Times column, Wayne Rooney accused the Health secretary of desperately trying to divert attention from the government’s handling of the crisis. Meanwhile, Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs have offered their two Manchester hotels to NHS staff free of charge. Another popular maxim needs re-writing: “The media ex-Man Utd captains are a social necessity that hold the government to account.”

  1. Beware the “new normal”

There is a concept in Lacanian psychoanalysis that causes much debate and consternation: ‘the Real’. Slavoj Žižek has developed a rather intriguing interpretation and use of this concept in his political philosophy. The Real is that which cannot be articulated, that which escapes signification. It is the uncountable x that is always just out of reach. Yet, it is ever present. Žižek’s 2002 book Welcome to the Desert of the Real explores how traumatic events can serve as an intervention of the Real, acting as a temporary disruption of all that we assume to be right and true. His case study is the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The attacks disrupted the fantasy of America the strong, of America the beloved bastion of freedom. In the wake of the intervention of the Real, new fantasies are deployed to explain the exposed contingency of socio-symbolic structures.

Regardless of whether Žižek’s interpretation of Lacan is ‘correct’ (many psychoanalysts, particularly clinical practitioners, disagree with it), his development of the Real is certainly of use to us in these exceptional times. The virus is exposing certain truisms as being nothing but fantasies. This absolutely offers the potential for something positive and even emancipatory to fill in the rupture in our social reality. Indeed, we are already seeing signs of this. The stark failures of the garrotted welfare state are being addressed by a proliferation of mutual-aid groups whose aims are to last well beyond the end of the pandemic and to become a permanent feature of their communities.

But we must also be starkly aware of the inevitability of a vicious reactionary backlash, just as was witnessed post-9/11. The terrorist attacks nearly two decades 19 years ago forged a new landscape in which major curbs on civil liberties were made in the name of national security. Debates on torture and racial profiling were given a fresh airing. The climate of fear and hostility fuelled a growing islamophobia that has not abated. There is no doubt that, in the rush to suture the breach in our symbolic order, new reactionary fantasies will be mobilised. 

Sinophobia is already becoming a popular modality for ‘explaining’ the pandemic: “it’s the Chinese who are to blame, thanks to their barbaric eating habits”. As the bell curve flattens (hopefully sooner, rather than later), there is no doubt we will be treated to new truisms about public finance and welfarism as well as a rehashing of the old ones. I can already hear “we need to live within our means”. But I can also hear “the NHS wasn’t prepared; it is not fit for purpose” and “homeworkers don’t need to be paid as much”. Be prepared for an all-out assault on our living and working conditions, framed as a the new normal.

Stuart Bennett is an academic and researcher working at the University of Bath. He specialises in Marxian political economy, Lacanian ideology critique and Hegelian idealism.
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