Coronavirus: A Radical Interpretation

In a previous essay, I outlined how society might take advantage of our dire pandemic predicament by exploring, consolidating and streamlining certain environmental ideas which would have been regarded as too edgy just a scant few months ago.  Though it may seem difficult, it is incumbent on us to try and salvage something from this humanitarian crisis, and assuming the world goes back to some semblance of normality, society must transform itself not just environmentally but politically and socially as well.  Though pandemics may vary in type, duration and mortality, they frequently tend to be “game changers,” and so, as Coronavirus exacts a greater social and economic toll, it may be helpful to reflect on some previous history.

During the Black Death, disease killed so many people that the pandemic wound up hastening the ultimate demise of feudalism.  With labor in short supply, peasants were able to bargain for higher wages and lower rents, and the standard of living as well as social mobility increased.  Simultaneously, wealth inequality plummeted as workers began to eat and drink better than before, while acquiring fancy clothes.  Moreover, landlords saw their incomes shrink due to lower rents, and lords and knights began to disappear within the social hierarchy.  What’s more, the plague shattered public confidence towards authority as people flagrantly disregarded the law, a development which needless to say perturbed the wealthy.

Similarly, the Spanish flu of 1918 served as a kind of “clarifying moment” highlighting class and social differences.  By exacerbating the supply of goods, flu prompted uprisings, strikes and anti-imperialist protest across the globe, while leading many to become disenchanted with capitalism and colonialism.  In many countries, governments were pressured to phase in the welfare state and improve public health measures.  In the U.S., meanwhile, women left farms and entered the workforce as a result of the death of so many men, which in turn accelerated the drive towards the women’s vote.  In India, flu killed an estimated 18 million, fanning anger against British authorities which had neglected healthcare and uniting militants behind Gandhi and the independence movement.

False Choice: Nationalism or Globalization?

While society finds itself in a bleak predicament, we must try to find a silver lining to this crisis or alternatively descend into a dystopian future in which democratic regimes falter while authoritarian governments become more assertive.  In France, Italy and Britain, political leaders enjoyed an initial surge in popularity, but as patience has worn thin with the Coronavirus response, the public has begun to turn on politicians.  With the West distracted, Xi Jinping has cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrators and sought to intimidate Taiwan while providing aid to countries struggling to contain Coronavirus.  In Hungary, meanwhile, Viktor Orbán has assumed emergency powers while sidelining parliament, even as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and India’s Narendra Modi clamp down on civil rights.

If nationalists become emboldened, the pandemic may force elites to re-evaluate “globalization,” a trend referring to the globalized flow of goods, people and capital.  Even before Coronavirus hit, right-wing nationalists had railed against globalization to further their own political agendas, and that trend is likely to continue as the world comes to terms with pathogens spreading at an alarming rate via air travel.  Already, there is talk of reforming globalization, or promoting a drive toward “national developmentalism.”  Indeed, some nationalists have seized on Coronavirus as an additional reason to seal off borders and bring factories home, while railing against China for spreading the virus.

And yet, throughout this crisis, other progressive voices have been largely absent from the debate, perhaps out of concern that criticizing China might feed into a nationalist critique.  This in turn has allowed rightists to monopolize the entire discussion, an ironic development in light of the earlier anti-globalization movement which brought together organized labor and environmentalists.  If anything, Coronavirus should prompt a reconsideration of such previous struggles, which sought to protect local economies from subversion of transnational capital while erecting tariffs to protect farmers and conducting an activist trade policy designed to sustain national economies, rather than disrupting the latter via cheap commodities and supply chains run by large corporations.

On a certain level, it seems logical that if globalization takes a hit as a result of Coronavirus, then the central state will become a direct beneficiary.  In the short-term, at least, the pandemic has strengthened the hand of nativists intent on dismantling international supply chains and repatriating production to the domestic United States, and the crisis may encourage experimentation with state capitalism.  In the long-run, however, authorities failure to address public health emergencies may conversely bolster calls for greater state socialism.  In that model, officials would nationalize hospitals and workers would not be regarded as a force to protect markets but rather as a means of protecting life itself.  In this scenario, the government would step in to ensure food production, energy and housing.

Class Conflict and Pandemics

Though state socialism would certainly be an improvement over the status quo, it’s not as if socialist Spain, for example, has stood out for its stellar handling of Coronavirus.  As a result, it’s possible that some countries could become even more radicalized by the end of this crisis and class conflict will be sharpened.  In the absence of a coordinated state response, we have seen the emergence of so-called “mutual aid” networks which have stepped in to provide essential services.  Originally a term coined by nineteenth century anarchist thinker Peter Kropotkin, “mutual aid” is currently enjoying a revival, from neighbors helping each other to community support networks to providing grocery shopping to meal preparation.

In the U.S., Coronavirus has highlighted class fissures in stark relief.  The economically disadvantaged and racial minorities have been more prone to disease, and Coronavirus has laid bare class divides in terms of access to health care, education, living space and the like.  Indeed, “a kind of pandemic caste system” has developed, with the rich ensconced in their vacation homes, the middle class stuck at home with children and the working class forced to work on the front lines.  Internationally, too, the disease has revealed class fissures: in China, for example, the rich can afford home delivery of meals, but food delivery drivers have been forced to work.  In India, social distancing seems like an unrealistic pipe dream in the midst of crowded shantytowns.

Needless to say, inequalities have sparked class conflict and led to improvised political organizing.  In the U.S., Amazon workers incensed over lack of safety walked off the job, while workers at Whole Foods staged a “sick out.”  Meanwhile, healthcare workers have protested lack of protective equipment, tenants are organizing rent strikes, and housing activists have occupied vacant buildings.  In Detroit, transport workers went on strike over concerns that vehicles had not been properly disinfected.  Laborers abroad have followed suit, with port workers in France walking off the job due to unsafe conditions.

Challenge to State Authority

On the face of it, Coronavirus has created “boom times for centralized state bureaucracies,” accompanied by an extraordinary level of state intervention in citizens’ lives and a blow to globalization with clamp downs on international borders and travel.  Meanwhile, the concept of multilateralism, from the European Union to the United Nations to the World Health Organization, has suffered a crisis of confidence.

And yet, in certain parts of the world, it’s not central states which have taken the lead but other institutions, suggesting that “rather than a world of strengthened states contained within ever more impermeable borders, the pandemic could leave behind a much more complicated and messier political world, where power is contested in new ways—or perhaps in very old ones.”  In Brazil and Mexico, state and regional governments have stepped in to fill the vacuum in central planning, while in France local authorities have defied Paris by overseeing more extensive public health measures.

Perhaps, we could see the emergence of “hyper-regionalism,” in which mega-cities become more dominant and step in to provide resilient services.  Already, northeastern U.S. states have formed a pact to try and figure out a common Coronavirus strategy, with western states including California, Oregon and Washington following suit, not to mention a group of Midwestern states.  Governors have even named public health and economic officials to assist with joint plans.

Though such moves are certainly innovative, states could move even further by establishing “interstate compacts,” which are similar to treaty arrangements, and thereby bypass federal control.  In an eye-opening statement, California governor Gavin Newsom recently remarked that he would “use the purchasing power of the state of California as a nation-state” to acquire needed medical supplies.  Though Newsom is a Democrat, such pushback from states has been lauded by no less than the libertarian right as a necessary corrective to federal failure.

World-Wide Rebellion and Pandemics

Meanwhile, the pandemic most certainly will fan the flames of revolt which had broken out even prior to the pandemic, from Lebanon to Chile to Hong Kong and beyond.  Indeed, 2019 had already come to be known as “the year of street protest.”  Sparked by corruption, political repression, the rising cost of living and simmering inequality, such revolts unfortunately failed to articulate a coherent radical vision, let alone a consistent set of environmental principles.  For now, Coronavirus has predictably enough exerted a chilling effect on unrest.

Nevertheless, the pandemic hasn’t entirely stamped out the spirit of revolt.  From hungry migrant laborers protesting in the streets, to starving others demanding the right to work, to prison riots, to demonstrators calling for their governments to do more to confront the virus to citizens banging on pots and pans, people across the globe have come up with creative forms of dissent.  Some activists have even taken to online protest, though unfortunately such demonstrations have failed to cause the same level of disruption as earlier street protest.

Hardly a bastion of progressive thought, Bloomberg media itself has remarked, “the immediate effect of Covid-19 is to dampen most forms of unrest, as both democratic and authoritarian governments force their populations into lockdowns, which keep people from taking to the streets or gathering in groups.  But behind the doors of quarantined households, in the lengthening lines of soup kitchens, in prisons and slums and refugee camps — wherever people were hungry, sick and worried even before the outbreak — tragedy and trauma are building up.  One way or another, these pressures will erupt.”

Sweeping Aside the Ancien Régime

Conventional pundits have claimed that Coronavirus will shore up authoritarian governments.  But even in China, where Xi Jinping has seemingly weathered the political storm, unrest seethes below the surface.  As Financial Times notes, it would be a mistake “to misread [authoritarian] power-grabs as evidence that the pandemic naturally entrenches illiberal regimes.”  Indeed, if anything, Coronavirus has exposed Beijing’s fragility as evidenced by angry public protest over the authorities’ initial handling of the pandemic.  Such protest overlapped with months of pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong.  In Russia, meanwhile, Coronavirus has exacted a heavy economic and political toll on Vladimir Putin.

Ultimately, however, “with the street revolts’ underlying causes largely unaddressed, those surviving remnants could eventually swell once more.”  Whether protests break out within western democracies or authoritarian states, Bloomberg notes that “it would be naive to think that, once this medical emergency is over, either individual countries or the world can carry on as before.  Anger and bitterness will find new outlets.  In time, these passions could become new populist or radical movements, intent on sweeping aside whatever ancien regimes they define as the enemy.”

It was difficult enough to sort through and make sense of the earlier diffuse wave of 2019 world-wide protest, which in time might seem positively quaint in comparison to what lies in store.  Having failed to link up with such earlier struggles, perhaps environmentalists might seize on our present predicament to rethink and re-tool their message.  Just like previous public health “game-changers,” Coronavirus will no doubt galvanize and crystallize class and social divisions, but if future rebellions are to succeed and not merely slip into chaos, they must think shrewdly about how the pandemic is likely to reconfigure, or even revolutionize, politics as we know it.

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