I know a lot of you are worried. Some of you are really worried.
There’s shorter term concerns about how we and our families are going to get along in the coming weeks and months. Some of us have health issues which make us more vulnerable to COVID-19. Some of us have lost jobs or other income.
But some people are wondering whether COVID-19 is the beginning of the end of civilization. I recently had a conversation with Sam Mitchell of the Collapse Chronicles about COVID-19 and whether it is going to “trigger” the collapse of global industrial civilization. Here’s my two cents …
Is COVID-19 the beginning of the end?
I don’t think COVID-19 is the beginning of the end. For one thing, I think the “end” began decades ago. I think we’ve been in collapse–albeit a slow-motion and staggered collapse–since the 1970s.
Yes, we’ve seen a lot of significant steps on the road of collapse in recent years. The 2016 election of Donald Trump will probably go down in history as one of those steps. But, then, so will the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 COVID-19 is one more step–maybe a significant step–but it’s just another step on the long road of collapse.
The more important question
I think the more important question is this: How are we going to react to this latest step on the road of collapse?
For one thing, it’s practically inevitable that we will see a power grab by the political and economic elites in the coming weeks and months. While this particular crisis practically begs for social-democratic reforms like socialized medicine, universal basic income, etc., what always follows these kinds of crises is the opposite: privatization and greater social stratification. Naomi Klein calls this the “shock doctrine” and “disaster capitalism”. It
“is the political strategy of using large-scale crises to push through policies that systematically deepen inequality, enrich elites, and undercut everyone else. In moments of crisis, people tend to focus on the daily emergencies of surviving that crisis, whatever it is, and tend to put too much trust in those in power. We take our eyes off the ball a little bit in moments of crisis.”
Mark my words, when the danger of the coronavirus passes, Republicans–and some “centrist” (read neoliberal) Democrats–will be calling for the privatization of public health functions, based on their (real or perceived) failure to handle this pandemic. It will be profit-driven. It will further erode our social safety-net, which will lead to greater economic inequality. It make absolutely no one safer, and likely will make people a lot unsafer.
This is what they do.
Our choice at this moment
I am also concerned that this pandemic may cause people to react with hyper-individualism, isolationism, and xenophobia. Right now, the socially responsible thing to do is to practice social distancing. But my fear is that this period of temporary social distancing will become a time of permanent social isolation–worse than we already had before the pandemic arrived.
But this crisis could also be an opportunity. An opportunity for people to realize how interconnected we are. To realize that caring for the least among us is actually an act of self-preservation. An opportunity for people to develop a new sense of responsibility for our neighbors. For a new kind of community to (re-)emerge. It is a window. An opportunity for a cultural shift to happen, a shift from individualism to communalism and from human-centrism to eco-centrism.
“‘I’ll take care of me and my own, we can get the best insurance there is, and if you don’t have good insurance it’s probably your fault, that’s not my problem’: This is what this sort of winners-take-all economy does to our brains. What a moment of crisis like this unveils is our porousness to one another. We’re seeing in real time that we are so much more interconnected to one another than our quite brutal economic system would have us believe.
“We might think we’ll be safe if we have good health care, but if the person making our food, or delivering our food, or packing our boxes doesn’t have health care and can’t afford to get tested—let alone stay home from work because they don’t have paid sick leave—we won’t be safe. If we don’t take care of each other, none of us is cared for. We are enmeshed.”
The most radical thing we can do in a capitalist system is to genuinely and deeply connect with other people–preferably in the flesh. Capitalism alienates us from each other and from nature. Any action which connects us to the wider human and other-than-human community is a form of resistance.
Naomi Klein likes to quote the conservative economist Milton Friedman, who wrote:
“Only a crisis—actual or percieved—produces real change. When the crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”
Friedman was talking about neoliberalism. Klein was talking about how neoliberal exploited disasters like the Gulf War and Katrina to profit. But the “shock doctrine” works both ways. An eco-centric perspective is one of those ideas that are laying around too. And, while it might be long shot, I think it is important to keep that idea alive for the moment when the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.