May 19. Last week two differing visions of the post-covid19 world were published.
The first was by the distinguished political philosopher John Gray in his ‘Unherd’ blog (thanks to my friend John Naughton for this).
He answered the question in his title, ‘How Apocalyptic is Now?’ with a resounding affirmative. The pandemic fitted into an established pattern.
‘history is repeatedly punctuated by discontinuities in which what was gained is irrecoverably lost. Whether because of war or revolution, famine or epidemic — or a deadly combination, as in the Russian Civil War — the sudden death of ways of life is a regular occurrence. Certainly there are periods of incremental improvement, but they rarely last longer than two or three generations. Progress occurs in interludes when history is idling.’
After dwelling at length on the millions of lives lost after the Russian Revolution, ranging from civil war to state-induced famine, he reached the modern day full of pessimism:
‘Much in the way we lived before the virus is already irretrievable … More than government-enforced policies, public attitudes will prevent any reversion to pre-Covid ways. Covid-19 may not be an exceptionally lethal pathogen, but it is fearful enough. Soon temperature checks will be ubiquitous and surveillance via mobile phones omnipresent. Social distancing, in one form or another, will be entrenched everywhere beyond the home. The impact on the economy will be immeasurable. Enterprises that adapt quickly will thrive, but sectors that relied on pre-Covid lifestyles — pubs, restaurants, sporting events, discos and airline travel, for example — will shrink or disappear. The impact on the “knowledge classes” will be far-reaching. Higher education operates on a model of student living that social distancing has rendered defunct. Museums, journalism, publishing and the arts all face similar shocks. Automation and artificial intelligence will wipe out swathes of middle class employment. Accelerating a trend that has been underway for decades, the remains of bourgeois life will be swept away.
By contrast, the American writer Rebecca Solnit wrote a long op ed piece in the Guardian.
She listed multiple examples of how the crisis had been met by community action in different parts of the world, including Britain, and looked forward to a transformed society: ‘I sometimes think that capitalism is a catastrophe constantly being mitigated and cleaned up by mutual aid and kinship networks, by the generosity of religious and secular organisations, by the toil of human-rights lawyers and climate groups, and by the kindness of strangers. Imagine if these forces, this spirit, weren’t just the cleanup crew, but were the ones setting the agenda.’
As with Gray, she viewed the crisis as a turning-point in history, but with a quite different outcome:
The pandemic marks the end of an era and the beginning of another – one whose harshness must be mitigated by a spirit of generosity. An artist hunched over her sewing machine, a young person delivering groceries on his bicycle, a nurse suiting up for the ICU, a doctor heading to the Navajo nation, a graduate student hip-deep in Pyramid Lake catching trout for elders, a programmer setting up a website to organise a community: the work is under way. It can be the basis for the future, if we can recognise the value of these urges and actions, recognise that things can and must change profoundly, and if we can tell other stories about who we are, what we want and what is possible.
Take your pick. What may be said is that such speculation, though understandable, is premature. The Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai is said to have replied ‘too soon to tell’ when Richard Nixon asked him whether he thought the French Revolution was good thing.* So also with our present drama in this third week in May 2020.
What may also be said is that Gray’s determinism seems out of place. Post-modernism has taught us to mistrust cyclical views of history, the notion that liberalism, imperialism, capitalism, the proletariat, Corbyn’s Labour Party, must eventually prevail, irrespective of individual intention. Gray’s negative version of this trope, that all plans for progress will regularly be overthrown by versions of the apocalypse, belongs to that tradition. If a more benign vision is to transpire, it will be the outcome of conscious, determined action in the aftermath. The coronavirus by itself will not guarantee progress.
*In their tedious instinct to overthrow a good story, historians have now suggested that the exchange was a translation error. Zhou Enlai, speaking in 1972, may have thought the question was about the French Days of May of 1968. More likely, less fun.