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Looking beyond the coronavirus pandemic: brave new world or same old suffering (and then some)?

Will the coronavirus pandemic change the way that we all do our politics and economics, or will we return to the same precarious globalising neoliberal world order? Worse still, could that world order already be mutating to pose an even greater threat to our livelihoods, freedoms and indeed life on Earth?

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Source: https://www.vperemen.com via Wikimedia Commons

Having arrived in Denmark to visit family the day before the border closed, I’ve spent almost two months holed up in a shack on an allotment, planting vegetables, installing PV and making very good use of a DIY compost toilet. But I’ve also been running a keen eye over articles, at least those written or translated into English, that foresee radical change, for better or for worse. What are the movement intellectuals of the left prophesising, those socialist, anarchist, green and feminist voices? What are the moral philosophers saying? The economists? And what do other engaged academics think? The following is my pick of what I’ve read with the briefest precis of each article to whet your appetite. To conclude, I venture a brief comment on them viewed collectively.

Rebecca Solnit: ‘The way we get through this is together’: the rise of mutual aid under coronavirus
Solnit observes that, when faced with disaster, although some people react selfishly, the majority of us help each other out: we turn to mutual aid, an anarchist notion of coexistence. Faced with the corona pandemic, Solnit notes that ‘we moved apart to come together’: we physically distanced ourselves from each other as part of caring for our communities and constructing for ourselves alternative models of how society and economy can work. In the eventual wake of the pandemic, economic recession if not depression seems inevitable, but the mutual aid we developed in the midst of the crisis can be the basis for a better, fairer, and greener future, Solnit concludes.

Arundhati Roy: The pandemic is a portal
Particularly critical of the response of the central government in the US and even more so of that in India, Roy points out that for many people the corona virus is less of a threat than becoming unemployed and so unable to feed themselves. They also have to deal with the coercive violence of the state as it attempts to regulate their movements. In the past, pandemics have sparked fresh imaginings of the world, Roy claims. Thus she encourages us to ditch the baggage of a history blighted by prejudice, greed and environmental destruction and to walk lightly through a portal into another world, one that we must however be prepared to fight to create.

George Monbiot: Coronavirus shows us it’s time to rethink everything. Let's start with education
Monbiot highlights ‘a crashing lapse’ in ecological education in the UK. Extending his argument philosophically, he decries the stress put on competition in a time when we so need to cooperate;  and on economic growth when we need to prioritise health and well-being. Monbiot suggests that going back to school in the wake of the corona pandemic could afford us the opportunity to prioritise outdoor education, and so put the natural world at the centre of the way we understand the world.

Naomi Klein: Screen New Deal: Under Cover of Mass Death, Andrew Cuomo Calls in the Billionaires to Build a High-Tech Dystopia
Returning to her notion of the ‘shock doctrine’, Klein identifies an emerging pandemic strain that she punningly dubs the ‘Screen New Deal’. Big tech companies are lining up to cash in on the corona crisis, viewing it as a huge opportunity. ‘Disaster capitalism’ will replace society with technology: ‘It’s a future in which our every move, our every word, our every relationship is trackable, traceable and data-mineable by unprecedented collaborations between government and tech giants.’ Klein fears that the response to the pandemic will mask the roll out of technologies that elude public oversight and ultimately threaten democracy.

Mark Whitehead: Surveillance Capitalism in the time of Covid-19: the possible costs of technological liberation from lockdown
Whitehead notes the communications and entertainment benefits that many of have experienced during the coronavirus pandemic. However, he quickly turns to his major concerns about another aspect of digital technology: the use of contact tracking and tracing, digital warning systems, and facial recognition. He observes that ‘it is easy to see why tensions are emerging between the physical ability to be liberated from lockdown, and long-term privacy concerns about the right to be free from surveillance’. Utilising Shoshana Zuboff’s notion of ‘surveillance capitalism’, Whitehead analyses the risks. He concludes that we must be extremely careful that the smart technologies which seem essential today do not blight all our tomorrows, negating human judgement, ambiguity, and morality.

Panagiotis Sotiris: Against Agamben: Is a Democratic Biopolitics Possible?
Sotiris argues against an earlier intervention by Georgio Agamben, the renowned Italian philosopher. Agamben proposed that governments had reacted disproportionately to the corona pandemic, using it as a pretext to assert more control of people’s lives, limiting freedom in the name of safety. Sotiris counters Agamben’s intervention, posing the question of whether a democratic biopolitics is possible. A concept of French philosopher Michel Foucault, biopolitics is essentially a political rationality that aims to order populations and individuals. Soitris argues for a ‘biopolitics from below’, where social movements hold governments to account, mitigating control and taking action to maximise public health and safety.

Laura Spinney interviews Thomas Piketty: Will coronavirus lead to fairer societies? Thomas Piketty explores the prospect
Science journalist Laura Spinney interviews French economist Thomas Piketty, asking whether the coronavirus pandemic will lead to fairer societies. Piketty asserts that ‘The right response to this crisis would be to revive the social state in the global north, and to accelerate its development in the global south.’ While major shocks, such as this pandemic, inevitably change society, Piketty argues that the shift will only be towards greater equality if there are political and social mobilisations to make it so. He briefly discusses post-pandemic strategies such as taxation, increasing investment in healthcare, de-globalisation, the transformation of the EU, and the potential emergence of participatory socialism.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett: Why coronavirus might just create a more equal society in Britain
Epidemiologists Wilkinson and Picket should be right at home analysing the impact of corona virus. In their 2009 book, The Spirit Level, they argued that more equal societies were better for everyone, not least in terms of health. In this article they make the (debatable) claim that the pandemic has forced the UK government to put human well-being ahead of economic growth. They argue that it must continue to promote equality in order to address the climate crisis.

Andrew Anthony reviews Toby Ord:What if Covid-19 isn't our biggest threat?
Bucking the journalistic trend, Andrew Anthony looks beyond coronavirus to explore even greater threats to humankind. The discussion here revolves around philosopher Toby Ord’s book The Precipice, wherein he assesses the existential risks we face. Spoiler alert: Ord estimates that naturally occurring risks, including viral pandemics, are much less of a threat than climate change and that old exploding chestnut nuclear war.

Neil Vallelly: The coronavirus decade: post-capitalist nightmare or socialist awakening
Proposing that this decade will define this century, Neil Vallelly asks ‘are we emerging into a post-capitalist nightmare or is this the beginning of a socialist awakening?’ His ‘thought experiment’ transports us through the decades, beginning with the 2010s and ‘post-capitalist imaginaries’. Ultimately, Valley contests that only ‘a mass socialist awakening’ in the 2020s can save us from a post-capitalism worse than capitalism: an era of ever deeper precarity, impoverishment, oppression, and environmental collapse. In his alternative, a ‘socialist post-capitalism’, the political would mean a transformation of power relations and it would take precedence over the economic and technological.

Arun Kundnani: From Fanon to ventilators: fighting for our right to breathe
Neoliberal states view the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to further tighten control of their populations and sever markets from human relationships via ‘algorithmic rule’, says Kundnani. The poor, migrants and political protesters are set to be purged from public space under the guise of protecting the health of the population. Kundnani highlights the disproportionate threat to ‘people of color’, noting that the right to breathe freely is no longer only a metaphor of postcolonialsm: it is literal. We will have to fight for a new social order after the pandemic has assailed our social lives, he concludes, organising our societies to serve human needs and not boost corporate profits.

Engaged academia: Humans are not resources. Coronavirus shows why we must democratise work
More than 3,000 academics from over 600 universities across the globe signed up to this demand to democratise work. Their central contention is that people are not resources and work cannot be reduced to a commodity: health and social care cannot be left to market forces. The academic collective proposes democratising workplaces, involving workers in decision-making, and de-commodifying work by guaranteeing everyone useful employment. These proposals, they write, stem from lessons learned during the coronavirus crisis. Looking to that and the other crises the world faces, the academics warn: ‘Let us fool ourselves no longer: left to their own devices, most capital investors will not care for the dignity of labour investors, nor will they lead the fight against environmental catastrophe.’

And then some
Much of what is argued in the articles I’ve reviewed above is old-hat, which is certainly not to say it’s bad hat! There are some very strong arguments here. Socialists, environmentalists, feminists, anarchists: these movement voices have been putting forward compelling critiques of neoliberal capitalism for a long time. A number of the articles compare the global financial crisis of 2007/8 to the current coronavirus pandemic, noting the lessons we failed to learn from that experience and the changes that did not happen in society. However, not all of the authors reiterating their ideological critiques have developed a genuinely fresh take in response the pandemic. To date, as I understand it, there isn’t a conclusive causal link between neoliberalism and the emergence of this coronavirus, though Laura Spinney writing in the Guardian explored the connection with factory farming. As a human geographer, I find the spatializing effect of a viral pandemic on politics and society particularly intriguing, as Solnit observed.

Perhaps this collected political commentary can be broken down into the optimistic and the pessimistic, those heralding the opportunity to make progressive changes and those warning of increasing oppression, exploitation and subjection. With the jaundiced eye of a disappointed (though not disillusioned) activist, I have to say I find the dystopian critiques more convincing. From the shocks and movement mobilisations of the recent past, from the aftermaths of Hurricane Katrina to Occupy, I note that the centrality of mutual aid tends to fade to a marginal residue as the seductive options of state and market forcibly reassert themselves. If the coronavirus is opening a portal for progressive change, for equality and ecological sustainability, then we will most certainly have to fight hard for it collectively and en masse, and sustain that effort for a very long time, to keep the portal open. The most compelling – and fearful – critiques I find to be those offered by Klein, Whitehead and Kundnani: the ‘screen new deal’ and ‘algorithmic rule’ enabling the absolute realization of surveillance capitalism; the sanitation of public space, the erosion of liberty, the diminishment of democracy, and the end of even the illusion of human free will. The other analysis that I am especially heedful of is Ord’s assessment that the risks of climate change and nuclear conflict outweigh our concerns about this and any future pandemic. Overall, reading these article makes it clearer than ever to me that without public scrutiny and being held to account - which inevitably necessitates direct action - governments and states, corporations and technology, are not to be trusted with human lives nor the health of the planet.

Topics: COVID-19