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Reflections on Closed Doors

Published March 25, 2020 by David Perry

David Perry is a Media Consultant and Co-Producer at the Woolf Institute. He has worked on series including Naked Reflections, Encounter and An A-Z of Believing as well as documentaries like We do do God on BBC Radio 4. In this blog, David writes about the dangers of COVID-19 and his reflections on its societal impact.

As the Woolf Institute closes its doors for the time being, many thoughts come to mind, most of them gloomy. We are all learning about this virus, how it spreads and how our bodies resist it or fail to resist it. But it occurs to me that there is a parallel between our physical vulnerability to the virus and our societal vulnerability to the crisis it has engendered. Our social defences are weak, perilously so. Decades of attacks on regulation, employment law and housing standards started in the 1980s under the banner of individualist triumphalism. If you cannot hack it, it's your fault: there's no such thing as society.

As far as I can see the Woolf Institute stands foursquarely against such thinking, as it is about bringing people and groups together, finding common ground. 'There is no such thing as unconnected individualism' might be a motto.

The individualist virus mutated into austerity after the economic crash of 2008. Endless salami-slicing of local authority budgets, lack of investment in the NHS and the criminal justice system, market solutions for things that clearly have nothing to do with markets: it has left us on our knees barely able to cope with the crisis we are now facing.

And there's another parallel here. Identity politics and strident religious intolerance have flared up in the same period. These phenomena that the Woolf Institute strongly argues against are closely related to the obsessive individualism that I have just been describing. How so? To start down the road of belligerent racial or religious signalling is to start down a slippery slope towards ever shrinking groups of adherents. The original group becomes too baggy, too messy; it will break into smaller and more fissiparous groups of the like-minded until it eventually disintegrates into the solitary individualism so lauded by that benighted think- tanker who gave Margaret Thatcher the phrase "no such thing as society". It is a sort of societal calculus, whereby the degree of change is reduced and reduced until it becomes a point. Delta y becomes dy according to Leibnitz's mathematical formula.

This shut down could spark a massive transformation in the way we run our lives, which might be no bad thing. In the meantime, it's a bit scary. I for one am already missing the sparky and collegiate team at the Woolf Institute and am looking forward to the day the Institute opens its doors again.

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