With thanks for inspiration from News from Nowhere by William Morris

THE Sleeper awoke with a start. There was a knock at the door – the first he had heard in years. Slowly, he remembered what had happened. There had been a great plague and the Government had ordered that everyone over 70 be forcibly isolated in their own homes, to stop them from being infected. At least that is what he had read in the right-wing media and Twitter accounts, which was the way that Government communicated its actions to the people in those days.

During his long period of isolation, food had been delivered by a company called something like DeliverUs or Uberoo. Except they often didn’t find The Sleeper’s remote house. He didn’t blame them. The Sleeper knew DeliverUs drivers were poor people on zero-hours contracts who were using their own cars for work and who were “fined” if they were behind schedule.

The Sleeper strongly suspected these drivers only pretended to deliver, so as to keep their jobs. This might explain why food parcels were few and far between. Fortunately, The Sleeper could grow vegetables in his garden and so survived.

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The Sleeper wondered how long it had been since he had last spoken to another living soul except his two cats, Rufus and Humphrey. To be honest, after the first year or so, The Sleeper had begun to enjoy his isolation. He gave up watching the BBC and its endless round of so-called “commentators” – self-opinionated people who knew nothing but liked the sound of their own voices. This move made him very calm.

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Also, The Sleeper had jumped on his phone and broken it, after reading a tweet from Piers Morgan. Somehow, the subsequent lack of social media made the world feel a calmer place.

The Sleeper carefully washed his hands in homemade soap – he had rediscovered the joys of self-sufficiency – then opened the door a crack to his visitor. To tell the truth, The Sleeper was worried about reconnecting to the insane world he had left behind.

He remembered that America was run by a perma-tanned idiot stupid enough to have dismantled the White House pandemic warning team just before the world was engulfed by The Virus. Britain was no better. He remembered a Prime Minister called Boris who wanted everyone to get The Virus, so those who didn’t die would be immune from further infection. This was something to do with eugenics.

So, The Sleeper was pleasantly surprised to meet a charming young man on the other side of his front door. “Hello,” the young man said. “I’m Peter. I’m from your local commune. We were worried about you. I’m happy to leave you alone, of course. There’s no longer a state to tell you what to do. I’m just a local volunteer from the commune. Perhaps you’d like to come for a walk and see how things have changed for the better? The Virus has long gone.”

In truth, The Sleeper was happy to have this change in routine – and another human being to talk to. But he felt a bit too embarrassed to ask Peter just how long it had been since the plague.

The first thing The Sleeper noticed as they reached the village was the absence of cars, especially the big SUVs the weekenders like to show off in. “The Virus really made people think again about their quality of life,” Peter explained. “We became more co-operative and decided to live in harmony with nature rather than destroy it.

“We call this The Big Change. In America, they refer to it as Bernie’s Revolution. Some oldsters like you call it socialism, but not the top-down kind. It took the shock of all those people dying to make the world ditch capitalism and consumerism.”

The Sleeper, who had been a lefty of sorts in the previous world, was intrigued. “But how do people earn a living?” he enquired. “Somebody has to do the dirty work, surely?”

Peter said kindly: “Well, there were machines and AI to do all that before the plague. The problem was the profits went to a few billionaires while a lot of folk had to work on zero-hours contracts in shit jobs to survive. We kept the robots, got rid of the billionaires, divvied up the goods and cut working hours dramatically. We call it the Virgin Economy.”

The Sleeper was perplexed. “Why do you call it the Virgin Economy?” he asked. “Easy!” smiled Peter. “There was this billionaire, Richard Branson, whose reaction to The Virus was to demand the taxpayer subsidise his and other airlines with £7.5 billion.

“People just laughed. Here was a guy worth gazillions, who “owned” a Caribbean island, demanding a public bailout because capitalism wasn’t working for him. And at a time when thousands of ill people were being told to take time off work and live on £94-a-week sick pay.”

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Peter went on: “The Government was forced to nationalise the airlines and run them for the common good – which included scaling them down to avoid climate change. This proved so successful that public ownership spread like wildfire to private medicine, profiteering supermarkets, and everything else.

“Branson’s company was called Virgin, so … we invented a new, virgin way of running things!”

“And what happened to Branson?” The Sleeper wanted to know, though only out of politeness.

“Tough luck. He had to sell his island,” replied Peter.

The National: Will the coronavirus fundamentally change how politics works?Will the coronavirus fundamentally change how politics works?

They went to the local cafe, which was run as a village co-op. Over an excellent, locally sourced lunch, The Sleeper enquired as to who was the current prime minister.

Peter explained they no longer ran things that way. First, the Scots, Northern Irelanders and Welsh had simply told Boris Johnson to get stuffed and began to run their own affairs, which proved very popular.

Eventually, most people on the Atlantic Archipelago (previously known as the British Isles) realised that the solidarity and initiative shown by communities during the era of The Virus was a more efficient and satisfying way of running society than going back to the insecurity and state bureaucracy they had previously known. “Now we run things collectively”, explained Peter. “We call it taking back control.”

The Sleeper was mystified. This went against everything he had been told to think by the BBC and Daily Express. “But how do people find the time to take part in direct democracy?” he asked. “They must have jobs to do and families to look after. Besides, you need experts.”

It was Peter’s turn to be perplexed: “Well, with the swift conversion to AI and job-sharing, our average work week is around 20 hours, so that leaves plenty of time for community discussion. People also have the leisure and interest to become their own ‘experts’, if that’s their fancy. Why delegate running society to somebody you don’t know?”

The Sleeper suddenly remembered when Donald Trump and Boris Johnson were in charge of dealing with The Virus. Perhaps Peter had a point.

It was dusk when Peter delivered The Sleeper back to his home. The Sleeper dozed in his rocking chair with two cats on his lap. Had he dreamed today? Was a better world really possible?