In times of crisis, the response is the most important form of action. Sometimes situations can be made worse, with smaller, internal problems arising as a result. The response also tells you a lot about the values and the logic of individuals and the society as a whole. People stockpile toilet roll, the police demonstrate their powers, and the government deflects responsibility, but we all seem to be clapping. Individuals and states have a different capacity in their response. We all owe essential workers, like NHS staff, not just our lives, but recognition of their work. Recognition can be a sufficient response. It is very much within the rhythm of the status quo, however this crisis shows us recognition is not enough.
Responses to COVID-19 have been various. The crisis has tested governmental organisations like the EU, highlighting its limits as a political institution and possibly an indication of its failure. Political associations are defined and determined by their reaction to a rupture in their ‘smoothness’. Besides the ongoing failures of Europe, the United Kingdom is quickly descending into further chaos, similar to that seen in Italy and Spain. Though unacknowledged by some, reports indicate the UK could be one of the worse hit countries in Europe. There are close to a thousand deaths a day. The NHS is under immense strain. While many of us sit at home comfortably, annoyed about our plans being cancelled, essential workers go out to work. The government were lucky that they had time to see the tragedy that hit Spain and Italy, but their inaction is deafening to us now.
Solidarity is needed in times like this. The government leads the applause with images of politicians clapping with smiles across their faces, posted on their social media and dispersed around the internet, gleefully demonstrating their recognition for essential workers. These are the same people who inflicted a decade of brutal cuts, leading Junior doctors to take industrial action in 2014. Now, NHS staff are not getting the proper safety equipment, risking their safety. As of writing, the death of NHS workers is thought to be over twenty. The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, said in a press conference that ‘now is not the time to talk about pay rises for nurses’. Several days later, he also suggested to the staff that they should not overuse the PPE that the government provides. This is also on top of thousands of deaths happening in care homes that could have been prevented.
The recognition that we owe health care workers in all times, crisis or not, is enormous. There is something beautiful about neighbours coming together in solidarity, as the videos demonstrate, and showing support through clapping. Do businesses and the state share this sentiment when they show recognition? Acts of recognition led by the powerful can be dangerous and not as emancipatory as initially thought. There is a problem with recognition.
What is Recognition?
Acts of recognition have been plenty. People across the country have clapped for nurses, doctors and carers. There has been talk of awarding medals out to the NHS. Social media has been ablaze with individuals running 5K and nominating friends to do the same. Fundraisers are being hosted by companies such as Virgin Media (a company that has previously gone to court against an NHS Trust in Surrey).An ignorant person would easily get the impression the NHS is a charity and not a state funded service. In the USA, the American air force flew their fighter jets in formation to offer respect to their health workers, in possibly one of the most American thing my eyes have seen. All these are acts of recognition.
Who and what is recognised within a society is vital. The forms and the practices of that recognition are also a highly important matter. Some truths about a society can be revealed in the forms of recognition they subscribe to, or what is made salient through these practices. Recognition is a social phenomenon and has long been thought about in the history of philosophy. There are elements within Plato that show recognition from others is a necessity for the psychological flourishing of the person, as well as a society as a whole. Under this conception, a part of my soul desires recognition.
Hegel was another major philosopher to formulate conceptions of recognition in his infamous system. I am not going to bore you too much with Hegel, but he elaborated something that he called Ethical Life (or as he would say Sittlihkeit). Hegel offers a distinction between morality and ethics. Morality concerns the individual, whilst ethics constitutes societal norms. For example, you may choose not to eat meat for moral reasons, like it causes suffering to animals, but a society that bans meat would entail an ethical decision that forms as part of our life as a community. Recognition is the essence to Ethical Life. This 19th century German fella identified three forms it could take- love, respect and (social) esteem. For the flourishing of you and the community, which is reciprocal, you need love in your personal life, respect through legal and political rights and a system in place that rewards your abilities.
This all seems rosy but as with all philosophy there are disagreements. Who constructs the foundations of the esteem? Who does the practice of recognition benefit, beyond your ego? Recognition can presuppose a certain value of ‘good’ that, well, might not actually be good for you. Acts of recognition can also absolve any effort towards critical thinking. For example, let’s all run 5K and do something to help. Getting caught up in these acts can make us conform to this good, or sometimes hide the truth of that act: like around 20p of every £5 donation going directly into Mr. Branson’s pocket.
Do We Need Recognition?
The concept of recognition is important for psychological and social reasons. The problem lies, though, not in the framework of recognition but its function. What is recognition doing, what is it ignoring? The issue with recognition is it entails conformity and can reinforce an ideology which only serves to benefit those in power, not us. Recognition can swoop us away with goodness of action, blocking our sight from reality. We cannot seem to notice the ideological presupposition that is at the core of acts of recognition, which functions to transform an action into inaction.
Recognition is like this. You work in a pub and like your job. You and your colleagues all contribute to the business through pulling pints, stocking fridges, wiping tables. For some reason you do not get any recognition from your boss and you are confused. The workload you offer is very much the same as others, if not more. You do not get the promotion. Why can’t you be the supervisor of the bar? Yet the recognition from those in charge is not what you need. Rather, the underlying issue is that the recognition that your boss offers you is merely a token towards your alleviation from having no money.
Recognition can be weaponised to create illusions. It only goes so far. Material change would mean getting a higher pay from the profit you create. Recognition is sufficient, but material change is necessary for an easier life. I would suggest, as many forms of recognition seem to be, that it is an ideological device, instituted by those who lead us, to avoid doing anything materially meaningful. They enjoy serving an Ideal with zero intent to do anything about it. The clapping signifies an abstract action from the government. It constitutes the extent of their action. It is only their egos that benefit. If this government cared about the NHS, the last decade would not have happened. Empty signs from the powerful will not protect the health of our workers.
Recognition is a form of positive action. Sometimes, it’s good to be negative. This might be pessimistic, which I am, but when we apply ambiguous categories like recognition, it can have different meanings for many, drawing our attentions away from what matters in the real world. Sometimes a focus on the negative is more productive. Why were the NHS staff not being recognised before? Misrecognition should be the focus ahead of recognition. More is known from what is ignored.
Are We Being Bullshitted?
What this crisis shows, and which we must show fidelity to, is what is really valuable in society. This dislocation has boiled to the surface a truth, not new, but an old one. People are dying and those in power think they can use the usual political techniques, but the truth is it quite obvious. Recognition is not lying, but it is bullshit. It is not about being recognised by those who are in power but the materiality of change that can be enacted. When recognition comes in the right context, it can be an act of solidarity, however (currently) it fosters illusions. We should not strive for recognition from those who are powerful and conform to their presuppositions, be it nothing short of inaction or sly tricks.
The capability of our response may fall only within clapping and donations, but the state’s power exceeds us all. The people in office have the power to make lives safer and every day they chose not to. They have been making this decision for decades. We need thousands of tests, the correct equipment for all workers, higher pay that represents their labour value, and vitally, we need truth about what is happening across this country. The deaths we hear about are not numbers but people, their deaths could have been preventable. You would imagine the state’s function is to keep their citizens safe and they have failed us. Recognition is instrumentalised by power. Workers need to demand something real from their government and not a performance which surrenders to their authority.