Politics and pandemics
We will need new forms of solidarity to fight our way through this to a better place
The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, Sick of the System: Why the COVID-19 Recovery Must be Revolutionary, slated for release in May 2020 by Between the Lines. Featuring essays on poverty, health care, incarceration, basic income, policing, Indigenous communities, and more, this anthology delivers a stinging rebuke of the pre-pandemic status quo and a stark exposé of the buried weaknesses in our social and political systems.
The COVID-19 crisis is exposing deeply buried and widely ignored injustices and weaknesses in social arrangements and political systems around the world. It also reveals some potential strengths and possibilities. But the dangers of the virus are so intensely personal for each individual, each family, and each household that our minds tend to be occupied with coping with day-to-day pressures and trying to keep up with the latest news. Seeking a longer and deeper view of what the crisis might mean, we asked contributors to write short essays about what the COVID-19 crisis reveals to them about the world we live in, how it might change because of the pandemic, and what actions we can pursue to ensure these changes work towards justice and freedom for all.
It is already clear that After the Pandemic will not be the same as Before the Pandemic. Much less clear is what the shape of that change will be. The inevitability of change is disguised by powerful political, business, and media voices that call to “reopen the economy” and to return to “normality” more or less swiftly. They aim, of course, to preserve their powerful positions in the post-pandemic system. It is not surprising that the call to return to “normality” resonates among those threatened and those already victimized by the plague. Victimization is not simply a matter for those unlucky enough to catch COVID-19 but entails a vast swath of collateral damage: bereaved families, workers dumped from precarious work into unemployment, those already marginalized pushed to the very edge of starvation, health-care workers stressed beyond endurance in institutions lacking the basic tools to cope. No wonder the normality of a more convivial life in public spaces of a few short weeks ago holds such attraction.
But the disruptions of the current outbreak and the fear of its recurrence make a return to our previous normality highly unlikely. Past pandemics like the Black Death or the Spanish Flu brought about huge shifts in class relations and international power balances. Another aspect of the current reality reinforces the necessity of change: the COVID-19 crisis stands as a precursor to the much slower and monstrously larger global climate crisis. We already see indications that “normality” will never be what it was. The number of jobs lost, small business bankruptcies, entire industries shuttered or hamstrung (airlines, cruise ships, petrochemicals, oil and gas, to name only an obvious few), plus high levels of debt that will strain public finance already severely hampered by tax avoidance by corporations and the super-rich. The sales of big-ticket items like real estate and new vehicles have gone through the floor. Container ship traffic has dropped by more than half, and the whole system of international trade is endangered by autarkic reactions, with closed frontiers almost everywhere. Like it or not, we are going to emerge to a new reality that cries out for some fresh new thinking.
There are other possibilities long on offer—front and centre, a fairer decentralized economy and polity. Already we see that reduced economic activity and grounded flights have resulted in a 25 percent drop in greenhouse gas emissions, less air pollution, and bluer skies. Ocean scientists claim it would take only thirty years to recover the health of oceans if we stopped despoiling them and treated them as a renewable resource. Our notion of what to revalue as necessary labour for society is shifting dramatically with the recognition that those who keep the food chain going (grocery clerks, truckers, cleaners, farmers) and care for our suddenly fragile health system need to be cherished and better rewarded. Not so much: real estate agents, the entire advertising profession, hugely expensive military machines, and the commercial services industry with its stock brokers and hedge fund managers.
The COVID-19 crisis is in no way what the degrowth and other radical environmental movements advocated. Yet their prediction that, if degrowth is not democratically planned, it will arrive nonetheless in a chaotic and harmful fashion is proving all too accurate. We can now see the outlines of a degrowth future that moves us beyond our current carbon-intensive pattern of endless expansion. In fact the COVID-19 crisis is making us do some of the things required to live within the planet’s ecological boundaries. We have a stark choice before us. Rework our economy and polity around the possibilities that tackle climate change, and find a better way to distribute society’s wealth and sustain livelihoods. Or continue to ratchet up the labour market to produce ever more jobs while paying no attention to their ecological implications or levels of pay and conditions of work.
While it would be great to think that we are all in this together in a common fight where everyone does their part, we all know our world does not work like that. Mainstream politics, reflecting pursuit of power and profit, is plagued by persistent inequalities. However, some political chasms have narrowed. It seems we are all Keynesians now, as money that “we just couldn’t afford” yesterday is now flowing from official coffers. Budgets hemmed in by neo-liberal austerity are (at least for the moment) a thing of the past and now include a burst of public largesse all over the world. But as usual, the devil is in the details.
The left coalition government in Spain is using the pandemic and resulting economic crisis to roll out a long-term plan for a permanent Guaranteed Annual Income for all Spanish citizens. According to Economy Minister Nadia Calvino, the GAI will be in place “as soon as possible” and Basic Income will become an instrument “that stays forever, that becomes a structural instrument, a permanent instrument.”
Unlike in Spain, Canada’s finance minister Bill Morneau, in crafting the Canadian relief package, has been careful to avoid any commitment to a Guaranteed Annual Income, instead tying relief to support for employers by subsidizing wages so as to maintain the authoritarian wage relationship. The Trudeau Liberals also initially tied their short-term relief plan to employment—you can’t get it unless you earned at least five thousand dollars in the previous year. While this leaves out millions of Canadians (the unemployed, the unemployable, low-income seniors, students, precarious workers, many self-employed), the Liberals promise to fill these gaps. At least one group, the students, will need to look for relief in an amped-up summer student job program. One assumes that as soon as Morneau figures out ways to attach others to the labour market, they might get some relief. All of this seems to combine a puritanical belief in the redemptive value of work (“those who do not work, neither shall they eat”) with a lack of policy imagination beyond knee-jerk returning of Canada to traditional measures of economics focused on job numbers that ignore the quality and purpose of those jobs.
Other proposed bailout schemes in Canada include fifteen billion dollars for the oil and gas industry, despite the fact that if we are to survive species-threatening climate degradation we need to be phasing out this form of carbon capitalism. And with oil prices tanking to below zero, where does this lead to? Canada’s corporate bailout package also fails to follow the progressive lead of France, Denmark, and Poland, who are excluding all corporations that evade taxes by using offshore tax havens.
The other danger from those who will leave no stone unturned to get back to our elusive normal is the ramping up of special powers, both federally and provincially, to further enforce surveillance capitalism. In a showdown with those reluctant about the normality that got us here in the first place, such an authoritarian permanent state of exception might prove useful.
We will need new forms of solidarity to fight our way through this to a better place. As Slavoj Žižek concludes in his just published COVID-19 Shakes the World:
So there is a hope that corporeal distancing will even strengthen the intensity of our link with others. It is only now, when I have to avoid many of those who are close to me, that I fully experience their presence, their importance to me.
The essays that follow examine many aspects of our pandemic experience, the direction to which the resulting politics are heading, and the opportunities for progressive action that we might find in these stressful times.
Richard Swift is a freelance journalist and activist based in Montreal. He is a founding member of Between the Lines and worked for many years as an editor for the Oxford-based New Internationalist magazine. He is the author of a number of books including SOS: Alternatives to Capitalism.