In the late 18th century, William Blake wrote a poem, ‘London’, that depicts the city subordinated to trade.
I wander through each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow …
Blake originally wrote ‘dirty’ street and ‘dirty’ Thames, but, as Raymond Williams pointed out in The Country and the City (p.148), the change of adjective introduces the idea of ‘chartering’: the organisation of a city in terms of trade. As he wanders through the streets already (in 1794) under the control of the Corporation of London, Blake notes people bound by ‘mind-forg’d manacles’: the religion that keeps the child sweeping chimneys, the patriotism that emboldens the soldier to defend the king. But mainly he hears the curse of prostitution and the commodifying of relations that spreads both mental and physical plague. All these, Blake implies, derive from a social system where people have to sell themselves to survive.
Perhaps our current time is the first period for several hundred years when the city is not subordinated to trade. The stores are closed. The streets are almost empty. Metal beer barrels line up outside the deserted pubs. There is less traffic and less noise. The air is cleaner. Most people are indoors, learning to live without the constant pressure of work.
I’m not suggesting that capitalism has been magically transformed. But perhaps the lockdown is producing a change of consciousness. Economic fundamentalism has failed to prepare us for or protect us from a natural and predictable occurrence. Faced with the prospect of people dying from starvation as well as from the coronavirus, the Conservative government is supporting the population with sums of money that would have been unthinkable only a few weeks ago. Homeless people are being housed. Those self-employed or on short-term contracts can hope for government funding to tide them over. Those on permanent contracts but currently without work because of government restrictions on social gathering will receive 80% of their normal income.
Much of this promised support has yet to come through, and some people may not be caught by the safety net. But even Boris Johnson accepts that there is such a thing as society. Perhaps – just perhaps – we can look forward to a somewhat more caring and communal future.