Some are believing that we’ll emerge from the coronavirus closer, more empathetic and less reliant on capitalism. This is not the case.
Back in March, Madonna released a video sharing her reflections on the Coronavirus pandemic. For some reason, the video was filmed with her naked in a bathtub filled with rose petals. In a hushed tone with eyes downcast, she speaks to camera: “That’s the thing about COVID-19. It doesn’t care about how rich you are, how famous you are, how funny you are, how smart you are, where you live, how old you are, what amazing stories you can tell….It’s the great equaliser and what’s terrible about it is what’s great about it.”
I find Madonna’s take rather interesting. At first, I assumed she filmed the video inside her $28 million home in Beverly Hills, but it appears she is self-isolating in her 18th-century Moorish palace in Lisbon.
Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, there are fears about what a Coronavirus outbreak might look like for the more than 1 million Rohingya refugees huddled together in sprawling refugees camps. In case you’re not aware, those refugees were forced to flee Myanmar after coordinated attacks from the Burmese military that are regarded as crimes against humanity.
The reality is that this pandemic will disproportionately affect vulnerable populations — such as the homeless, refugees and the elderly — and those in lower-to-middle income countries, where access to healthcare is limited. Heck, even Donald Trump’s efforts to ensure that the US have preferential access to any COVID-19 vaccine speaks volumes about the disparities of wealth and power at play in this pandemic.
But my take here is nothing new — there have been a spate of articles covering this ground. I want to shift this discussion to related fiction: that we will inevitably emerge from this pandemic into a society that will be more empathetic, more caring, and more equal.
I would certainly not deny the deep problems that the dominant consumerist, capitalist world-view has created — from alienation from our physical bodies, the people around us and the natural world, to the destructive, extractive nature of capitalism and its demands for unending economic growth. But how is it that such a widespread, socio-economic and cultural change take place?
The disease of neoliberalism
Since the 1980s, modern societies have been strongly shaped by the forces of neoliberalism — an ideology championed by figures like Margret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and which is now the guiding principle of the Republican Party in the US (if not a number of mainstream Democrats).
Neoliberalism puts forward a conception of human relations that is profoundly problematic: first, it considers that competition is the primary organising principle of humanity. Second, that this competition is best governed by the free market, which will automatically tend towards the most efficient distribution of resources. This means governments need not worry about things like workers rights, public health care or wealth inequality: over time the free market will fix everything. The only job of government is to get out of the way.
When you see public services being slashed or sold off to private companies — like the corporatisation of college and university in the US, the defunding of public education, and the rejection of public healthcare — this is neoliberalism at work. But the social dynamics of this ideology are also worth considering. Proponents consider individual freedom as paramount. On face value, this doesn’t seem particularly nefarious, until we understand that this idea is taken to such an extreme that any notion of collective rights or solidarity are progressively undermined.
As Margaret Thatcher famously said: “They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.”
That is to say that the government has no obligation to the people: it does not need to ensure respect for human rights; it does not need to ensure that thousands of homeless people don’t die on the streets; it doesn’t need to stop pharmaceutical companies charging obscene prices for life-saving medication; it doesn’t need to provide education.
Consider our lives today: while many of us will feel that individual liberty is important, neoliberalism has taken this to such an extreme that it has transformed society into an atomised, isolated collection of individuals. We lack social, collective feeling. One can consider the disturbing rise of right-wing ethno-nationalism as a particularly negative reaction to this problem, and an attempt to build collective feeling on the basis of demonising and excluding others.
Where is the evidence for the ‘invisible hand’ of the free market?
Oddly, the deeply held neoliberal belief that the free market will fix all problems seems to be profoundly lacking in evidence. The French economist Thomas Piketty has done incredible work using vast amounts of economic data to show how decades of de-regulation has vastly increased wealth inequality in the US:
In short, it says that those born with wealth are likely to obtain more wealth. Those born without wealth are likely to stay that way — and the gap between either end of the spectrum is only increasing. This cuts deeply against the cherished myth of meritocracy in the US, which claims that the most talented people will inevitably rise to the top, no matter the obstacles they face.
Access to education shows a similar story:
What is particularly disturbing is how closely the wealth of a child’s parents can predict the change of them attending college. And if parental wealth drives that correlation, where is the room for brilliant individuals to rise through the ranks?
This detour into neoliberalism aims to make the point that if we want to address the problems of consumerism and destructive, extractive capitalism, then we need to create structural change. To make the argument that only individual action can make the change is to fall prey to the guiding lights of the ideology that got us into this mess in the first place.
I should acknowledge that, yes, alienation from the fruits of our labour is a problem worth serious consideration. But I am curious to know how a single mother, working three jobs at the soul-crushing minimum wage in the US, who never had a chance to go to college, whose workers rights have been completely eroded, who gets no sick leave, and who can never afford a home might make use of this advice. Or consider the example of a woman manufacturing clothing for a global brand in Bangladesh, who works 12+ hour days, 7 days a week for a wage which keeps her locked in a cycle of poverty.
These are structural issues that have to be addressed on the level of legislation. The problem is not a lack of initiative from these individuals; they are already working far harder than most of us ever well, and they very clearly do not have access to employment opportunities that might ‘nourish their soul’.
The poison of extreme individualism
Decades of mainstreaming of neoliberal values have left us with an atomised, alienated sense of self. We have been tricked into thinking that our personal experience — our comfort, our freedom, our convenience — is the only thing worth worrying about. This is why we have Americans proudly flouting Coronavirus lockdowns, seemingly oblivious to the fact that, while they may not directly suffer if they contract COVID-19, vulnerable people in their community will.
What we desperately need is a way to re-establish our sense of connectedness with the people, communities and the world around us, while at the same time weakening the grip of extreme individualism. Perhaps this pandemic does provide us with an opening: I know that personally I’ve become more aware of the community around me, and the impact that my actions have on others — from supporting local businesses in these difficult times, to ensuring that I don’t unwittingly spread an infection that may end up costing lives.
However, I do not think the answer is to ‘embrace love’. Reducing staggeringly large-scale structural problems to such a binary is a retreat from the complexity of the world — and it is precisely the sort of naive, romantic individualism that has become commonplace under neoliberalism. It allows you to believe that taking psychedelics and deciding to dedicate yourself to creative projects is somehow an act of profound importance. Really, it seems pretty selfish. To people who are being crushed by the forces around them, this ‘solution’ will seem utterly out of step with reality.
And let’s not delude ourselves: while we might see a bump in collective sentiment, you can bet that those with power will resume business as usual at the first opportunity.
Here in Australia that has meant creating a ‘National COVID-19 Coordination Commission’ that allowed a group of un-elected individuals to create legislation without oversight. Their plan is to pivot towards a ‘gas-powered recovery’ — which, in reality, represents the government’s continued disinterest in taking clean energy and climate change seriously. Until a few days ago the Commission was led by Nev Power, who also happens to be the deputy chairman of Strike Energy — a company with significant plans to develop gas fields in Western Australia.
But this is far from the end of it: while Australia has had a reasonably generous dose of economic stimulus, the Government’s ideological opponents have been excluded, namely large swathes of the arts sector, the ABC (our national broadcaster), and the university sector. There are also indications that workers rights may be further curtailed.
This doesn’t seem like the inevitable blossoming of a fairer, more caring society.
This pandemic may open up an opportunity for change, but we will have to fight for it. The way to do that is through the old fashioned techniques of political advocacy: calling MPs, taking part in petitions and protests (when safe to do so), and supporting organisations attempting to drive change.
Take this time to reflect on what you can do to support your local community, and to become more socially and politically engaged — because if we don’t, we might find ourselves far worse off than when this pandemic started.