As another week in lockdown passes, people are understandably worried about their future. The economic results of this global pandemic are set to rival the Great Depression of the 1930s with the global economy predicted to contract by 3 percent according to the International Monetary Fund. The impact on some sectors could be long-lasting and devastating. Many are desperate simply for life to return to normal. To this desire, I have some uncomfortable words. Returning to the old normal that we had before the crisis is unlikely. Rather, the issue we face is the struggle to define what the ‘new normal’ will be. What conception of the world, or whose conception(s) of the world will come to prevail and define everyday life in the aftermath of this pandemic?
Possibilities here abound. Recently in the UK, a clip of newsreader Emily Maitlis went viral. In this short clip Maitlis sought to give lie to the idea that this pandemic served as a great leveller, something that rich or poor suffered equally. She countered that instead the experience was marked by social inequalities, both in terms of exposure and the ability to deal with the consequences of lockdown. Oddly, my first reaction to seeing people sharing this clip was not hope, it was confusion and mild anger. Had not most critical work in the Social Sciences been pointing out these obvious facts about capitalist societies since Marx penned the Communist Manifesto? Why were people suddenly lauding a concern with inequalities when they have been staring us so starkly in the face for decades. Some of the same people sharing this clip on social media were the same people who just months before were happy to return to power a Conservative government whose austerity agenda was, by one estimation, responsible for the deaths of 120,000 people (a mortality rate not actually dissimilar to Covid-19, yet promoted as a necessary medicine to economic ills). The ideological contortions seemed mystifying to me. People were now simultaneously clapping health workers as heroes, yet continuing to support a government who roared with delight when denying nurses a pay rise.
However, as the knee-jerk anger subsided, I reflected how ideological change is not a straightforward, mechanical process. As we know, crises are precisely those moments when the greatest possibilities exist for minds to be changed. They have potential, as Antonio Gramsci reminds us, for people to ‘become detached from their traditional ideologies, and no longer believe what they used to believe previously.’
What becomes important are the narratives we produce and the collective memories we invoke that have the power to facilitate collective political projects. In reflecting on this, Gramsci also is of further service, as he pondered whether progressive change results from a period of crisis or whether they are eventually ‘resolved in favour of a restoration of the old ?
With these issues in mind, let us return to the issue of criticism and specifically the issue of criticism around the government’s handling of the crisis. One widely held view is that criticism of the government under the current circumstances is distasteful. This is the ‘rally round the flag’ argument. This means that, whilst individuals might not believe that a government’s response has been perfect, they still retain a common-sense belief that the government has everyone’s best interests at heart, the government is doing its best and that we must all pull together until this crisis is over. Until that time, any criticism should be tactful and muted. That is our patriotic duty. There has even been widespread support in the UK for a government of national unity to deal with the crisis. This argument about muting criticism should be seen for what it is. A call to abandon our critical faculties and renounce democratic accountability for what, at times have been mistakes that have caused or are causing the loss of life (in the context of the UK this has included the government’s initial myopic strategy of herd immunity, the continued poor rates of testing and the lack of basic personal protective equipment for frontline workers).
However, there is another reason why critique remains more important now than ever. The Covid-19 crisis may not yet have peaked. There may indeed be a second wave of the virus with unknown consequences. And yet, as the curve begins to flatten, and plans on easing lockdowns are considered, so too are the battles lines being drawn by the powerful about how to resolve the crisis. To whom should state-backed bailouts go? Which sectors or services could be allowed to go to the wall? How will the enormous costs of borrowing be paid back and who will shoulder this burden in the future? These are the short-term political questions that will require answer. But underlying them is a more powerful structural question. Is this to be just another episodic crisis of capitalism from which a renewed round of accumulation will result? This is certainly what most elites are hoping for in one form or another.
This does not mean that it will be a return to business as usual. The depth of the crisis might mean new social settlements will be produced. This will create both winners and losers. However, there are some portentous possibilities for the form that any such renewed project might take. This includes a reasonable fear, as experts have warned, that authoritarian, nationalistic modes of politics will be the new order of the day, with governments reluctant to give up their increased power to corral their citizens and repress dissent (notwithstanding the argument that authoritarian neoliberalism has been with us for sometime). If the past is any guide, we should also be highly wary of the ‘shock doctrine’ whereby crises are exploited and used as an opportunity to push through agendas that would provide enormous popular resistance under ‘normal’ circumstances.
These are legitimate concerns. However, there is still a choice to be made. We can passively accept that this is our fate or we can offer a set of counter-proposals that provide the possibilities of progressive and long lasting structural change to our political economy. The terrain for such an appeal has been immeasurably widened by the current crisis. Recall that our current neoliberal epoch was, in many countries, witness to the decline of national-popular forms of culture, to be replaced by post-modern, individualised or niche tastes and desires that had the concomitant effect of reducing social solidarity. Notwithstanding the inequalities of experience alluded to above, the current global pandemic has, in a compressed timeframe, created the potential, not just for reigniting national-popular forms of consciousness but for a global-popular politics.
Alongside the worst of humanity, who have hoarded goods or flouted public health warnings, we have also seen the best of human solidarity via renewed forms of mutual aid. As the majority of the world experiences lockdown, questions ranging from the environmental benefits of grounding aviation, the necessity of universal basic income or healthcare as a fundamental human right are widely debated with renewed urgency. The value of the work carried out by healthcare professionals, teachers, delivery drivers and supermarket workers is accorded a new level of respect as our definitions of who counts as a ‘key worker’ in our society are rethought. Others may choose to dwell on the new rhythms of life during their imposed exile from their workplace and which elements from the ‘old normal’ they would wish to retain, all things being equal. Have the additional caring responsibilities detracted us from work, or can we pause to think how it is work that pulls us away from the latter?
In the closest that he came to setting out any utopian vision of a future society, Marx wrote that:
In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.
Whilst our coronavirus society is far from utopian, let us use this time to reflect on what ‘new normal’ we want to develop out of this crisis. Will this be a progressive change that embraces collective solidarity or a restoration of the old? So, let us teach kids in the morning, take walks in the afternoon but continue to criticise in the evening, just as we have a mind. And yes, let the world financial markets briefly quake at the spectre of the coronavirus still haunting the world. But let the ruling classes truly tremble at the prospect of popular power from below, using this pandemic to reflect and then demand that a new normal be established that serves the interests of the majority.
We have a world to win.