As in any war, people are dying. Nothing very meaningful can be said about that. One can look at the videos coming out of the high tech hospitals. They convey something of the awfulness of death in a modern clinical setting. One can hope that one’s loved ones will be spared such a fate. Life, in such conditions, is a sorrowful lottery.
Some general observations are possible though. Much of this has already been chewed over in the more perceptive media.
Who, even three weeks ago, could have predicted the wholesale move away from neo-liberal practices ? Who could have anticipated the sudden re-discovery of the long discarded ethos of the “Fordist” state and it’s paternalism – intervention, intervention, intervention – into finance, production, distribution, law, social interaction and personal behaviour?
In less than twenty days almost forty years of neo-liberal deregulation has been reversed, so that the state now stipulates the rules that apply not only in the macro economy but also in the micro processes of everyday social interaction- from the amount of people we may legally congregate with, to how we are allowed to stand in relation to each other while we go about our daily business.
Quite suddenly the nation state has rediscovered itself in the face of a bio-hazard made possible by the very globalisation which now necessitates border closures and the grounding of aircraft. Border closures and the grounding of aircraft have, in turn, enabled a rediscovery of the idea of national identity, a process that was already underway almost everywhere in the face of large population movements conditioned on localised big power proxy wars. The election of Trump and the Brexit saga was, as has so often been said, only an indication of an underlying trend.
Quite suddenly national effort, social responsibility, self-sacrifice and communal solidarity have replaced individual interest, entrepreneurial inventiveness and business acumen as the watchwords of public discourse. Now strong leadership, centralised command, decisive action and commitment to collective effort are lauded over what was once (only a few weeks ago!) an unquestioned truth – that one should pursue, as of natural right, the interests, desires, needs and concerns of a bounded self and that in fact this was all one could pursue.
One wonders what might come next. Perhaps the world will follow China’s lead and impose universal lock-down to defeat the virus. One of the results will be an intensification of the critique of neo-liberal ideology which has been underway, if not in theory then in the political/electoral practice of vast numbers of ordinary people across the world.
Over on Agent Swarm Terence Blake has made an astute observation:
“The habitual mechanisms of official ideology must go into overdrive to accommodate to a real that is now visibly going faster than them. The need to change the official story and measures every day, or even several times a day, has made the wheels of these mechanisms far more visible and to far more people.”
This was exactly the situation of war capitalism during world war two. What is absent in our present situation is a regime of censorship of media outlets and a bellicose and alarmist rhetoric. For the most part European governments have tried to balance the need for direct state intervention with the existence of an ethos of respect for basic civil rights and a respect for the scientific facts about the virus and it’s consequences.
Will people draw the correct conclusion and see that in changing circumstances the official ideology can changes too and at remarkable speed and that the way we organise society is neither a God given or a natural truth? I hope so.
One of the conclusions that might now be drawn by a majority of people is that the Chinese model of capitalism – a strong national leadership presiding over the deployment of entrepreneurial and free market economics in the interests of the population as a whole – is the way to go in the face of the many unpredictable scenarios that will face us in the age of climate crisis.
The oscillation between war and austerity capitalism, conservative paternalism and free market economics has been the norm for almost the whole of capitalist history. The genius of the Chinese leadership is that they have been able to combine elements from all three in the particular conditions in which they found themselves after the failures of the great leap forward and the cultural revolution. Their solution does not include the freedom and personal autonomy we have come to value here in the west.
Many warnings have been issued in the last years about the possibility of an influenza like pandemic. All were ignored, more or less, and we are now suffering the consequences. Capitalism, both in its authoritarian state form and in it’s neo-liberal form, seems incapable of planning for such scenarios, (think of the coming climate catastrophes) perhaps because periodic crisis of one sort or another are built into the structure of this form of societal organization.
As was pointed out in many reports, the increase in the amounts of people who, with the help of medical procedures and long-term medication, are able to live into their seventies and eighties, will impact on the ability of the health services to respond in a time of crisis. This has been borne out by the collapse of the intensive care facilities in Lombardy. According to a recent statement by the Italian government, the average age of those who have died in intensive care is 78.5 years.
The reality is that all this could have been planned for and the miniscule amount needed to build and equip the required intensive care hospitals could have been diverted from the astronomical sums squandered on armaments or forms of useless technological replication.
The fact that the Chinese were able to construct two high tech facilities in a matter of weeks seems to bear out the observation that although the technological means and know how are available, even the most authoritarian forms of capitalism seem incapable of foresight and prudence.
Perhaps the powers that be will learn from this episode. If, as seems possible, the world follows in the footsteps of China and adopts a more authoritarian form of capitalism, such general catastrophes might become manageable.
I hate to add to our woes, but whatever the outcome, it does not auger well for those who hope for an evolution away form forms of centralised governance and capitalist economics to a future founded on a “free association of individuals” in which material, economic, cultural and scientific resources are produced and distributed in an ecological and just way for mutual use and enjoyment.
Perhaps, though, such a vision might still be realised on a small scale. Or perhaps that was always the case?
All such schemes are, of course, conditioned on the continued existence of the species. That has never been guaranteed. The skies are strewn with the debris of unimaginable cataclysms. The shadow of species annihilation has always accompanied humankind on its journey. Life was always in the lap of the Gods and still is, even if we now call our fate by another name.
Such a truth does not make the loss of a loved one or one’s utopian dreams of personal or collective redemption meaningless. Humans have always lived and died under the possibility of a fundamental loss of faith. One needs a practice that enables the cultivation of what used to be called the virtues – patience, courage, compassion, fortitude, discernment etc.
Not to mention some good fortune.
Unfortunately, because the distribution of luck is always unjust, there can never be absolute or universal redemption. Melancholia is the sister of hope.