No return to normal: For a post-pandemic liberation

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The following is a postscript to Max Haiven’s Revenge Capitalism: The Ghosts of Empire, the Demons of Capital, and the Settling of Unpayable Debts, due out in May from Pluto Press.

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Strikes across the frontier and strikes for higher wage
Planet lurches to the right as ideologies engage
Suddenly it’s repression, moratorium on rights
What did they think the politics of panic would invite?
Person in the street shrugs “Security comes first”
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse

Bruce Cockburn, “The Trouble with Normal

The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, unfolding around the world as I write these words, will likely be remembered as an epochal shift. In this extended winter, as borders close, as lockdowns and quarantines multiply, as people succumb and recover, there is a strong sense that, when the spring finally arrives we will awaken in a drastically changed landscape.

Those of us now in isolation, in spite of our fear and frustrations, in spite of our grief (for those who have died or may die, for the life we once lived, for the future we once hoped for), there is also a sense we are cocooned, transforming, waiting, dreaming. True: Terrors stalk the global landscape, notably the way the virus (or our countermeasures) will endanger those among us whom we, as a society, have already abandoned or devalued. So many of us are already disposable. So many of us are only learning it now, too late. Then there is the dangerous blurring of the line between humanitarian and authoritarian measures. There is the geopolitical weaponization of the pandemic.

But when the Spring comes, as it must, when we emerge from hibernation, it might be a time of profound global struggle against both the drive to “return to normal” ( the same normal that set the stage for this tragedy) and the “new normal” which might be even worse. Let us prepare as best we can, for we have a world to win.

The coming revenge of the new normal

I imagine that struggles to come will be defined by either the desperate drive to “return to normal,” or a great refusal of that normal. But this is no manichean melodrama.

On the one hand, there will be those who seek to return us to the order of global revenge capitalism to which we had become accustomed: a nihilistic system of global accumulation that appears to be taking a needless, warrantless vengeance on so many of us, though without any one individual intending any particular malice, and one which breeds the worst kind of revenge politics.

Of course, we should expect the demand that we return to the vindictive normal from the beneficiaries of that system (the wealthy, the political elite) who have everything to gain from business as usual. But we should also expect it from millions of those oppressed, exploited, and alienated by that system, whose lives have been reduced to slow death under it. After months of chaos, isolation and fear, the desire to return to normal, even if normal is an abusive system, may be extremely strong. The stage is set for this desire to be accompanied by a frantic revanchism. Will we want someone to blame, especially those of us who lose loved ones? Must there be blood, figurative or literal?: a baptism by fire so that the old order (which, of course, created the conditions of austerity and inequality that made this plague so devastating) can be reborn in purified form.

Of course, things will never be “normal” again: some of us, the privileged and wealthy, may be afforded the illusion, but this illusion is likely to be carried on the backs of the vast majority who will work harder, longer and for less, suffer greater risks and fewer rewards. The debts of the pandemic, literal and figurative, will have to be repaid.

On the other hand (or maybe at the same time), we can also expect that, among the powerful and among the rest of us, there will be calls to reject the “return to normal,” but in order to embrace something even worse. It is likely that the chaos and deaths of the pandemic will be blamed on too much democracy, liberalism, and empathy. Now that states are flexing their muscles and taking full command of society, there will be many who do not want the sleeve to be rolled back down. We may yet see, in this crisis, the use of repressive force on civilians (as it is already being used on migrants and incarcerated people), and I fear that it will be seen by many as justified, a human sacrifice to feed the Gods of fear.

In the wake of the pandemic we can be sure that fascists and reactionaries will seek to mobilize tropes of (racial, national, economic) purity, purification, parasitism, and pollution to impose their long-festering dreams on reality. The vengeful romance of the border, now more politicized than ever, will haunt all of us in the years to come. The “new” authoritarians, whether they emphasize the totalitarian state or the totalitarian market (or both), will insist that we all recognize we now live (have always lived) in a ruthless, competitive world and must take measures to wall ourselves in and cast out the undesirable. Other times, authoritarianism may come by stealth, cloaked in the rhetoric of science, liberalism, and the common good.

Meanwhile, there will almost certainly be efforts by those vastly enriched and empowered in the last decades, notably in the intertwined technology and financial sectors, to leverage their influence and resources, as well as the weakness and disarray of traditional institutions, to lead the reorganization of society along neo-technocratic lines. They will continue to generously offer the services of their powerful and integrated surveillance, logistics, financial, and data empires to “optimize” social and political life. This corporate dystopia can wear a human face: basic income, hypervigilance for new epidemics, personalized medicine. Already they arrive, bearing gifts to help us in this emergency: tracking disease vectors, banning disinformation, offering states help with data and population management. Underneath the mask will be the reorganization of society to better conform to the hyper-capitalist meta-algorithm which, though driven by capitalist contradictions, will essentially be neofeudal for most of us: a world of data and risk management where only a small handful enjoy the benefits. We will be told it is for our own good.

Our avenging refusal

Against all these fateful outcomes there will be those among us who refuse to return to normal, or to embrace the “new normal,” those of us who know that “the trouble with normal is it only gets worse.”

Already, in the state of emergency that the crisis has unleashed, we are seeing extraordinary measures emerge that reveal that much of the neoliberal regime’s claims to necessity and austerity were transparent lies. The God-like market has fallen, again. In different places a variety of measures are being introduced that would have been unimaginable even weeks ago. These have included the suspension of rents and mortgages, the free provision of public transit, the deployment of basic incomes, a hiatus in debt payments, the commandeering of privatized hospitals and other once-public infrastructure for the public good, the liberation of incarcerated people, and governments compelling private industries to reorient production to common needs. We hear news of significant numbers of people refusing to work, taking wildcat labor action, and demanding their right to live in radical ways. In some places, the underhoused are seizing vacant homes.

We are discovering, against the upside-down capitalist value paradigm which has enriched the few at the expense of the many, whose labour is truly valuable: care, service, and frontline public sector workers. There has been a proliferation of grassroots radical demands for policies of care and solidarity not only as emergency measures, but in perpetuity. Right-wing and capitalist think-tanks are panicking, fearful that half a century of careful ideological work to convince us of the necessity of neoliberalism (the transformation of our very souls) will be dispelled in the coming weeks and months. The sweet taste of freedom–real, interdependent freedom, not the lonely freedom of the market–lingers on the palate like a long-forgotten memory, but quickly turns bitter when its nectar is withdrawn. If we do not defend these material and spiritual gains, capitalism will come for its revenge.

Meanwhile, the quarantined and semi-isolated are discovering, using digital tools, new ways to mobilize to provide care and mutual aid to those in our communities in need. We are slowly recovering our lost powers of life in common, hidden in plain sight, our secret inheritance.  We are learning again to become a cooperative species, shedding the claustrophobic skin of homo oeconomicus. In the suspension of a capitalist order of competition, distrust, and endless, pointless hustle, our ingenuity and compassion are resurfacing like the dolphins returning to the Venice lagoon or birds to the smog-free sky.

When the Spring arrives, the struggle will be to preserve, enhance, network, and organize this ingenuity and compassion to demand no return to normal and no new normal. Around the world there has, over the past few years, been an unprecedented level of mobilization and organization of movements against revenge capitalism, sometimes around electoral candidates (eg. Corbyn in the UK, Sanders in the US) but also around grassroots campaigns: strikes against necro-neoliberalism in France, anti-authoritarianism in Hong Kong, anti-corruption in Lebanon and Iraq, anti-austerity in Chile, feminism in Mexico, struggles against gentrification and urban cleansing in cities around the world, migrant solidarity in Europe, Indigenous struggles in Canada, the climate struggle everywhere.

These pre-2020 struggles, important in their own right, will, I think, be remembered as the training grounds for a generation to whom now falls the burden of one of those turning points of history. We have learned how to bring a capitalist economy to its knees through non-violent protest in the face of overwhelming, technologically augmented oppression. We are learning how to become ungovernable by either states or markets. Equally importantly, we have learned new ways to care for one another without waiting for the state or for authorities. We are rediscovering the power of mutual aid and solidarity. We are learning how to communicate and cooperate anew. We have learned how to organize and to respond quickly, how to make collective decisions and to take responsibility for our fate.

Like the heroes of all good epics, we are not ready, our training was not completed, yet fate will not wait. Like all true heroes, we must make do with what we have: one another and nothing else.

As the world closes its eyes for this strange, dreamlike quarantine (save of course for those frontline health, service and care workers who, in the service of humanity, cannot rest, or those who have no safe place to dream), we must make ready for the waking. We are on the cusp of a great refusal of a return to normal and of a new normal, a vengeful normalcy that brought us this catastrophe and that will only lead to more catastrophe. In the weeks to come, it will be time to mourn and to dream, to prepare, to learn, and to connect as best we can.

When the isolation is over, we will awaken to a world where competing regimes of vindictive normalization will be at war with one another, a time of profound danger and opportunity. It will be a time to rise and to look one another in the eye.

History says, Don’t hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.

Seamus Heaney, “The Doubletake