The unfolding Covid-19 crisis will be a world historical event, with profound political, economic and social consequences.
In the zones where the oppressed continue to be warehoused in what, in many respects, is neo-apartheid South Africa, the lockdown measures have been enforced with the brutality and sadism that animated colonial forms of policing.
In recent days, as mutual aid has reached its limits and people have started to run out of food, lines of fracture have run through society with increasing velocity. Unless swift and decisive action is taken to ensure that people have access to food, riots seem imminent, as does an inevitably violent state response.
When the lockdown measures are finally lifted in full, the economy will have been devastated. Retrenchments, which were already at crisis levels before the pandemic, will escalate to terrifying levels. In global terms there are predictions of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The intersection of a health crisis and an economic crisis has produced the biggest crisis of capitalism and the global order since World War II. History has been cracked wide open.
Covid-19 is a new presence in the human body, and while the severity of the measures taken to restrict its spread are not unprecedented, the global scale of the lockdown has never been seen before in human history. We simply do not know what the pandemic, the measures taken to restrict its spread and the consequent economic catastrophe will mean for the future.
What we do know is that, as Frank Snowden observes in his monumental study Epidemics & Society, attempts to contain the plague and other infectious diseases legitimated new forms of authoritarianism in the name of public health. Snowden writes that in early modern Europe, “the campaign against plague marked a moment in the emergence of absolutism, and more generally, it promoted an accretion of the power and legitimation of the modern state”.
We may not be able to perceive the contours of life after the Covid-19 pandemic with any certainty but the sudden arrival of the virus has cast new light onto the grim realities of the world as it was when the virus hit.
The crisis has revealed that the global economy, limping along since the 2007/2008 financial crash, is an unstable racket designed to benefit the billionaire class. It has exposed shocking levels of class inequality, state authoritarianism and corruption, and the collapse of public services.
The rapid injection of money into public services in recent weeks has made it clear that austerity has always been a choice to immiserate ordinary people, rather than an economic necessity.
Social contradictions have been made brutally vivid in South Africa. The rich flock to security estates to consider their stocks. An economically precarious middle class, often one paycheck away from financial ruin, tries to work from home. Many among the working class face the threat of imminent starvation. The already impoverished must confront sickeningly violent police, soldiers and private security guards, the impossibility of social distancing in shack settlements, hostels, homeless shelters and prisons, and the cold hand of hunger tightening around their throats. As the philosopher Walter Benjamin famously observed, “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”
The world turned upside down
Times of crisis like these extend an existential sense of insecurity and unreality throughout society. Historically, these moments are fraught with danger and political reaction, and can be used to make the existing system even more vicious and cruel. There is often widespread support for state authoritarianism, and there is a terrible history of xenophobic, racist and sexist scapegoating of vulnerable groups.
As Naomi Klein wrote in The Shock Doctrine, in more recent times, pandemics, wars and ecological disasters have created new opportunities to impose privatisation, slash social spending, crush unions and social movements, and intensify state authoritarianism. Oligarchs, autocrats and corporations all subscribe to the tenet of “never letting a good crisis go to waste”.
However, the visceral realisation that social normality is no longer tenable is also an opening for radical, unprecedented change. This experience of immanent social transformation, of the world turned upside down, is also central to the history of political radicalism. The phrase “the world turned upside down” became popular during the 17th-century English revolution, where radical groups such as the Levellers, Diggers and Ranters imagined, and fought, for a world free of social distinctions and hierarchy – a world where the commons would belong to all.
This sense of possibility amid disaster has animated the boldest political experiments of modern history, often persisting despite brutal setbacks, repression and counter-revolution. It appeared in the French and Haitian revolutions, in the Paris Commune and in the utopian hopes of the Russian and Spanish revolutions. It can be seen in the remarkable efforts to build a feminist, eco-socialist society in Rojava in the middle of the horrific Syrian war.
This does not mean that we should adopt the fatalistic belief in “the worse, the better”. The Left intellectuals who gleefully predicted the last two financial crises, hoping they would automatically result in a socialist alternative have had to confront the hard realities of a world in which figures like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Narendra Modi have come to power on the back of economic decline and social suffering.
Old orders do not simply give way under the pressure of disaster. However, extraordinary times do offer an opening to the new, and the chance for ordinary people to collectively assert control of their destinies. But realising a progressive alternative to the old order requires ideas, organisation and political will.
What we are entering now is not the apocalyptic end of the world, but the end of a specific ideological reality. Since the 1980s and 1990s, most countries have been governed under the neoliberal logic that asserts that all aspects of society must be subordinated to the rule of the market. More than just a set of policies and prescriptions, neoliberalism is a political project intended to both solidify the power of the rich and to create a society of atomised individuals focused purely on a sociopathic quest for personal self-enrichment.
The pandemic, and the economic shockwaves that will follow in its wake, have revealed the profound rottenness of this worldview. The rhetoric of individual freedom and social prosperity has been revealed as the tattered stage trick of a low-rent magician, good only for moving wealth upwards and wholly incapable of responding to the entwined global crises in health, the economic and ecology. Suddenly we can all see that the world can live without Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, but not without nurses and grocery store workers.
The old days are never coming back
Across the planet, the Right aims to carry on with the barbarism and dysfunction of the established social order. This response aims to entrench austerity, privatisation, policing, militarisation and borders. It fuels the flames of ethnonationalism and xenophobia.
In the past, the trauma of plagues and wars has inspired extremist new ideologies. We should expect the right-wing mix of religious fundamentalism, free market fanaticism and seething resentment to become even more extreme and violent as the crisis deepens.
States and corporations may use this to introduce a new kind of “coronavirus capitalism”, with new regimes of discipline and surveillance over working-class people and brutal forms of policing and border control to contain the political costs of ever more onerous forms of austerity.
Combined with rising nationalism, the crisis may initiate a process of de-globalisation in which countries become more insular. Trump’s hostility to China could be a sign of things to come. Without substantive, global cooperation and reform, we could continue our downward spiral into high-tech feudalism, while societies are slowly obliterated by climate collapse. The world could become hotter, deadlier and even more hopeless than many of us feel today.
But the crisis has also revealed countervailing tendencies that point to an alternate future. The unprecedented medical effort has shown the advantages of global cooperation and solidarity, and makes the case for the creation of a global public healthcare system. The crisis has shown that health and economic inequality are threats to all, and asserted the primacy of the public sector in responding to shared threats.
The remarkable ways in which cities have become cleaner as a result of less pollution and carbon emissions during the lockdown also offers hope that our battered environment can recover more quickly than previously imagined.
The uncanny, global events of the last few months are an opportunity for epoch-defining shifts in values and perceptions. This is a chance to imagine new horizons of solidarity and to develop new forms of sociability and care. It enjoins us to reject the world of overwork and precarity for some, and immiseration for others, and to imagine a different kind of life.
As with the aftermath of the Great Depression, the political and economic turbulence of the near future can be an opening for a new social contract and for transformative reforms. Unions and workers can use this opening to push for concessions and to advance the case for economic arrangements that offer employment and dignity for all. Beyond the state, this crisis could encourage new forms of organisation and mutual aid that empower ordinary people.