Covid realism

This is just the way things are now. This is what we have to do. You have to do the right thing, don’t you? We’ve got to keep safe, haven’t we? We’ve got to make sure everyone’s safe, so… We just have to accept that that’s how things are.

Previously I have expounded the idea that far from being the result of a one-world-government conspiracy, or of a new-found sympathy for the old and vulnerable, the exaggerated panic and authoritarian policies arising in response to the relatively innocuous (by world-historical standards) coronavirus, Sars-Cov-2, are the early manifestations of a newly dominant, reactionary form of capitalism which I have called hyperneoliberalism.

Struggling to find a way to deal with the existential threat of a decade of low growth that followed the global financial crisis of 2007-08, capital has found a way out of the deadlock through the kind of massive destruction that has previously only been achieved through world wars. The ‘old’ industries, the ‘legacy’ institutions, the ‘backward looking’ business models and cultural forms are being destroyed to make way for the fluid forms of the digital. The human subject must therefore be transformed from one suitable to the old models of business – social, mobile, aspirational – to one suited to the new – atomised, static, risk-averse.

Bill Hicks prophesys lockdown in 1993

What has been remarkable to me is how readily people have accepted this new paradigm, how quickly they have assimilated and adjusted to an entirely new set of social norms imposed upon them by a small coterie of experts, backed of course by the state and mainstream media. Polls might well be intended to influence opinions as much as they guage them, but it seems that the level compliance with the raft of draconian, ever-changing, pseuodoscientific ‘restrictions’ is pretty high. Can it be that simply by bombarding people with sufficiently hysterical propoganda for long enough you can bully them into drastically lowering their expectations from life? Or had people’s defences already been taken out by what came before?

In 2009, cultural theorist Mark Fisher wrote of a kind of depressive realism that descended on the populations of the West following the Thatcherite/Reaganite neoliberal revolution of the late seventies/early eighties. The basic premise on which this ‘realism’ rests is that capitalism is the best possible economic system we can hope for and that therefore politics should be entirely confined to the limits within which capitalism operates. Fisher called this depressive outlook capitalist realism:

“[W]hat counts as ‘realistic’, what seems possible at any point in the social field, is defined by a series of political determinations. An ideological position can never be really successful until it is naturalized, and it cannot be naturalized while it is still thought of as a value rather than a fact. Accordingly, neoliberalism has sought to eliminate the very category of value in the ethical sense. Over the past thirty years, capitalist realism has successfully installed a ‘business ontology’ in which it is simply obvious that everything in society, including healthcare and education, should be run as a business.”

Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?

If I had to sum up capitalist realism in a single phrase it would go something like this:

We can’t have nice things, because markets.

Markets must proliferate, grow, expand. The order of things must be subject to continual upheaval, modernisation, disruption, destabilisation. The marketisation process cuts through every aspect of life, determining the options that confront people at every turn. Indeed, the ability to make choices within the limits of the market system (where the value of everything is judged against a single criteria: profitability) becomes central to both the claims about the system that it delivers freedom and to the individual’s sense of identity.

The result? An increasingly homogenous culture of diminishing opportunities. A pallette with an ever-expanding number of shades of ever-fewer colours. With markets mediating all discourse between individuals, they are encouraged to focus relentlessly on the self, and forced to distinguish themselves from each other (and distinguish themselves they must, for markets are all about competition) by the minor differences that are acceptable within the political and aesthetic ‘realities’ of the system.

Enthusiasm for subordinating both political and cultural life to the dictates of market logic, from school league tables to public-private partnerships, from the fawning wannabe CEOs of The Apprentice to the Bills, Bills, Bills of Destiny’s Child, reached its zenith in the years between the fall of communism – when capitalism’s only external ideological enemy imploded – and the global financial crisis of 2007-08. But then the banks needed bailing out with public money, and the ideological foundations for the idea of running everything like a business started looking very shaky indeed. At this point, you might thinks that capitalist realism would have started to falter but, as Fisher pointed out, the view that the logic of capitalism is inescapable was only strengthened by the state’s rescue of the financial system. The complete lack of alternative ideas in mainstream discourse only made the total retreat from the political field of battle in the face of market forces seem inevitable. All that needed updating were some of the rules of engagement, with terms like ‘too big to fail’ and ‘quantitative easing’ entering the popular lexicon alongside, but not contradicting, already-existing capitalist commonplaces like ‘survival of the fittest’ and ‘no such thing as a free lunch’.

But while the consumers of the world struggled on in their increasingly unstable lives – fraught with anxiety about their futures, subjected to ever-increasing managerialism, surveillance and ‘personal development’ when at work and bombarded by images of unattainable success or unrealistic portrayals of happiness when not – the managerial class whose responsibility it was to keep the system from collapsing entirely were running out of ideas. The bank bailouts only papered over the cracks. The debt had been transferred from bank balance sheets to national ones but they still needed to be made good to keep the lords of finance – the ascendant class among capitalists for thirty years – well supplied with Romanée-Conti. Hence austerity and the decade-long humiliation of the poor in the name of eliminating budget deficits. But even that wasn’t enough. The huge injections of bank-created money into the financial system might have been able to shore up enough bad debts to avoid total and immediate collapse, but they couldn’t produce further growth on top. And under capitalism, no growth means that collapse is inevitable sooner or later.

Nevertheless, people went along with the austerity, the belt tightening, the even more pronounced instability of life in general. A whole generation that had grown up with the idea that “there is no such thing as society” and that economic success is entirely down to individual responsibility was more than ready to accept that it was their own profligacy that had caused the crisis. That it was their very desire to be home owners and high rollers, incepted in the fever dreams of reality television, that had delayed the final triumph of free-market capitalism.

We can’t have nice things, because markets. There is no alternative to capitalism.

To the depressive, bad news always has a certain inevitability. Of course things are getting worse, they always do. To people living under the cloud of capitalist realism, their horizons already narrowed, their expectations already diminished, what could be more inevitable than a deadly pandemic? Nowhere has this kind of reaction to the coronavirus scare been more apparent, I think, than among mainstream progressives. The unions and most of what passes for the ‘left’ of the UK political scene have been operating within the boundaries of what is politically possible as laid down by neoliberalism for some time. Unable to imagine any other system than capitalism, the focus has been on attacking the ‘bad’ capitalists for exacerbating inequality through corrupt actions while the system itself only comes under critique for insufficient inclusivity and lack of diversity. These self-identified left wingers, or progressives, have almost welcomed the pandemic as another chance to bash the bad capitalists for profiting from crisis and point out how the effects have broken unevenly across lines of gender/ethnicity/sexuality and, occasionally, class.

Of course there’s a crisis. Of course it’s terrible. That’s the way things go. They always get worse.

This attitude takes capitalism for granted. There is nothing to be done about the misery that proliferates under the dominance of business ontology except to try to ameloriate the very worst of the effects. Nobody believes that capitalism is good. No one subscribes to Gordon Gekko’s greed-is-good dictum any more. But they go along with it anyway. The behaviours have become ritualised, automatic.

I just saw someone on the street, who’d clearly been wearing a face mask recently (it was still attached to their ears, but pulled down under the chin) embrace a friend on the street who they hadn’t seen in ‘such a long time’. Perhaps they were making a very rare exception for this long-lost friend, and normally they obay the rules to the letter. Or maybe they’re a skeptic like me and only follow the rules when absolutely necessary. But this person seemed too comfortable with the mask (which was one of the patterned, fashion-accessory type) to be worried about normalising them. I suspect that to this person they are already normal. Already part of the backdrop. The reason for their use was accepted long ago and, while all the evidence the person sees and hears suggests that they make no difference, to suddenly stop seems impossible, and so they disregard the new information. I also suspect that this is the case for the vast majority going along with the ‘restrictions’ – they do not believe in their necessity, but they comply anyway. First out of fear, then (as it became all to clear that the pandemic was not as serious as they’d been told) out of a desperate attempt to fulfil the social instinct under conditions where it has been made incredibly difficult and, finally, out of a kind of grim, detached acceptance. Like the characters in Kafka’s The Trial who have chosen the option of indefinite postponement, they must perform constant activity in the name of suppressing the virus so that they can avoid being subjected to the judgement of the big Other.

That last term comes from philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who concieves of ideology working under late capitalism through people’s cynical performance of acts which are demanded by society but which they know to be based on false premises. They know it’s bullshit, but they do it anyway. Here, Žižek echoes Peter Sloterdijk’s idea of ‘enlightened false consciousness’:

“The cynical subject is quite aware of the distance between the ideological mask and the social reality, but he none the less still insists upon the mask.”

Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology

If you substitute the metaphorical mask for an actual mask, it’s a perfect description of how covid realism operates.

Sadly, Žižek is unwilling to submit the present moment to this kind of interrogation. His book on the pandemic apparently recycles his usual calls for communism against the backdrop of Covid realism. He even, it seems, insists that “we should resist the temptation to treat the ongoing epidemic as something that has a deeper meaning”. Similarly, Naomi Klein, who literally wrote the book on disaster capitalism, has take the dangerousness of Covid-19 as axiomatic and is focused on critcising the insufficiently socialist response of the US government. Everywhere on the so-called ‘left’ have the ‘political realities’ imposed by the models and predictions of a relatively small number of scientists and public health professionals been accepted without scrutiny. Almost nowhere has the effective criminalisation of political meetings, of collective worship, of protest been challenged. How do these leading socialist thinkers imagine that a new politics of the collective might emerge when it is illegal for people to simply collect? By using social media platforms which have a new-found confidence when it comes to censoring expression of opinion which falls outside of the mainstream? Hardly.

Injunctions to not politicise the pandemic are facile. The very act of declaring a pandemic was political. The blanket assumption that extreme longevity should be prized above the general health and wellbeing of the young (as of 17 November, ONS reports that more than 70% of Covid-related deaths in England and Wales happened to people of 85 years or older, whereas less than 2% involved people under 45) is political. The strategies used to ‘fight’ the virus, to ‘flatten the curve’ and ‘keep it under control’, while cloaked in pseudoscientific language and statistical jargon, involve political choices. There were always going to be winners and losers. It was always the case that measures taken to limit the spread of infectious respiratory diseases might do more harm than good in the long run. That debate of these issues has been occluded, shoved to the fringes and identified with the far right and anti-vaxxers, so that the necessity of eliminating the virus stands unchallenged as a hard political reality, casts in a very poor light the democratic credentials of this supposedly liberal democracy.

So is there any reason to be optimistic? The principled stands of gym owners against laws insisting they stop offering people a place to improve their general health and wellbeing during an ostensible public health crisis, of academics against censorship of Covid skepticism, of people breaking into locked-up children’s playgrounds, of scientists against Scientism, of the clergy against the ban on collective worship, of rave organisers against the ban on shared aesthetic experiences, point to various ways out of the impasse. The church perhaps stands the best chance of building a genuinely social movement. The laws against collective worship are clearly in contravention of human rights legislation. If we see a resurgence in religiosity during the (perhaps interminable) period of the official pandemic it won’t be because the plague has cowed people into a newly-felt fear of the almighty, but because religious institutions may be the only institutions left which can provide a space for people to gather, relate, experience, celebrate, commiserate and organise as a collective.

“There is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.”

Gilles Deleuze, Postscript on the Societies of Control

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