CoVid19, capitalism and collapse of civilization.
CoVid19 is rapidly changing the world we grew up in. In the West, millions are starting to realize that their realities are not insulated from existential threats, a truth that people in the Global South were forced to accept long ago. It is certain that the collapse we are witnessing is monumental and very real. Millions of people have literally seen their means of living evaporate, casting their futures in serious doubt. Others — the homeless, handicapped, elderly, refugees, in other words the more vulnerable — have been abandoned to die or miraculously survive, in spite of odds. Governments have ramped up repression and put in place mass surveillance —a development which could prove very hard to undo once the virus passes. Let’s just say it would be rare if our masters would let this crisis go to waste — haven’t we all marveled at how effectively the totalitarian Chinese regime has handled this outbreak?
The pandemic is stretching our social fabric to its limit, exposing fault lines which had already eroded its flexibility significantly. As if we weren’t already living an era of existential fear. Had runaway climate change not recently crept into mass consciousness, evoking the specter of societal collapse and mass extinction? Had the rift between rich and poor in our societies not just reached Victorian levels? Was the obscene distribution of wealth and ever-escalating social inequality not ravaging the promises of liberal capitalism in a flaming inferno? Had we not just gotten used to the thousands of desperate poor people routinely drowning in the Mediterranean as they tried to scramble to safety on rickety dinghies, searching for a fighting chance on a continent that had rejected them? Had all of this not translated into mass frustration, growing xenophobia, rejection of liberal values and the rise of the far right? Had our own sense of helplessness not tricked us into seeing Donald Trump as an over-sized toddler entertainer, rather than a harbinger of doom, deliberately incapable and painfully inept to utter anything even remotely meaningful?
Mass unemployment, frustrated and impoverished populations exhausted by decades of cutbacks and growing social inequality, ruled over by repressive governments… Civil unrest seems inevitable. There will be no return to ‘business as usual.’ How can there be?
Collapse was always on the cards
I’ve personally been expecting the breakdown of society ever since I came out of school. Psychologically, the collapse of Western civilization always loomed on the horizon — informing my politics, as it gradually blended with my growing anger about the state of the world. As a student of History, I increasingly realized to what extent my own relative wealth was a product of the role my forefathers had played in the plundering of our planet and the destruction of other cultures.
It diluted my faith in our institutions, fed my skepticism for mainstream narratives and forever endowed me with sympathies for the underdog, the downtrodden and the unheard. It also destroyed the carefully crafted myth that our leaders are somehow ruling in our name. My admiration for those who challenged the power structures grew in direct opposition to my disdain for the self-proclaimed ‘guardians’ of our civilization. Those who ran the machinery of politics had become more clever and sophisticated, but nevertheless still ruled on behalf of the rich and powerful, trampling over ordinary people, barely concealing the predatory nature of ‘progress,’ whilst sugar-coating capitalism’s conquest of our planet and soul.
For me, that was what maturing into adulthood was all about — the creeping realization that our leaders don’t represent us, that they are no different from the predatory elites of history, one-dimensionally aiming to secure wealth for a minuscule number of people and disregarding the rest of us. As a young person growing up in modern capitalism, I felt a little like the religious man must have felt when he suddenly and unmistakably realized that God was a hoax. It all unraveled.
Corona and the bigger picture
When the true magnitude of the virus hit us some weeks ago, I think many of us suddenly started seeing the bigger picture — it became clear. The ingredients of collapse have always surrounded us. Did we not already know, somewhere, deep down, that the society we had built was wholly unsustainable? Did we not know in our gut that the existence of billionaires alongside poverty and starvation points at some type of systemic failure? Did we ever feel guilty about the endless consumption and entertainment; movies, gaming, television, sports, junk food, take-away, alcohol, holidays, social media, gadgets , celebrity culture , reality television ? — all of it…?!
And what about the waste? Throwing away excess food, the packaging on everything, the normality of a shower every day, the cold water dispenser in the doctor’s waiting room, that literally required one plastic cup per sip. Or eating meat, kilos at a time, booking Easy Jet flights to wherever, flying to Thailand and baking on a beach, surrounded by plastic waste and a poverty-stricken population, somehow a consolation that you at least were relatively well off and the debts on your cars, flights and houses were pretty manageable.
For a long time, a system driven by endless growth had us convinced that we ‘deserved’ all of these things. They gave us pleasure, but it was an artificial, shallow satisfaction, fed by capitalism on steroids, whose death rattle had produced all sorts of inventive ways of encouraging us to want even more. It had exhausted us to the extent that passive consumption is about all we could manage after coming home from a long day of work. Try working 40 hours, taking care of your children, cooking nutritious meals and squeezing in some active engagement. Of course, the increasing pressures of a system addicted to ‘growth’ made us vulnerable to the distractions of easy, mindless entertainment. We didn’t let our minds wander any more, but checked our emails or social media feeds.
What a tragedy that now, capitalism’s most cherished obscenities need to be cancelled. My own personal guilty pleasure — football — has just been postponed indefinitely. I know…; a bunch of multimillionaires chasing a piece of leather on a grass pitch, completely captured by celebrity culture and gazillionaires, who launder money they have stolen from their populations through football clubs — something I have somehow grown to love. Haven’t we just accepted destitute poverty in many parts of the world for decades? Or political oppression? Palestinians from Gaza are quite familiar with lock-down — they have suffered it since 1967. Can I still say this or will it be labelled as antisemitism?
Let’s be honest, it makes a lot of sense, this virus, originating from the depths of our severed relationship with the planet.
We have hacked and hacked away at some of the world’s most vital ecosystems, littered our oceans with plastic, ushered in the sixth extinction and heated up our atmosphere to such levels that life itself is threatened — we shouldn’t be surprised at some virus feasting on our ruins.
Do we actually ever really think about our systems of global (food) production when we carve away at those yummy steaks? Do chicken nuggets really exist? Look at how we have raped our soils, mass producing mono-culture crops, devastating whole countries, producing hunger alongside overproduction and deadly poverty alongside astonishing wealth.
Vulture capitalism has left us exposed to the pandemic
Meanwhile, capitalism’s vultures have been feasting on what was left of our welfare states, selling off what they would call ‘assets’ — essential public services for the rest of us. Now that Covid19 is ravaging our fragile systems, we rely on what is left. The vultures encourage us now to applaud the nurses who care without proper PPE equipment, bled dry by years of austerity and cutbacks. At the same time, whilst we were all working two jobs and loading ourselves with debts, the vultures were shifting monumental amounts of wealth — wealth created by taxpayers — into offshore oblivion, fortifying it, shielding it from the rest of us, thus further undermining our societies’ capacity to spend money on public services. CoVid has shed some light on the obscenities of modern wealth inequality.
Many of us are now at home, with time to think, reflect on where it all went wrong, like children on detention, grounded for being naughty, failing to see the consequences of our actions. Our planet has said: “Enough is enough. You want to mess around? I’ll show you messing around. Your illusion is a house of cards — all it needs is a firm gust of wind…” In the meantime we get a real good look at who essential workers really are. Clapping for them is all very moving and much needed, but can we maybe pay them properly and not send them into the firing line without proper equipment? It reminds one a bit of Russian peasant soldiers who were expected to fight the Germans at the Battle of Tannenberg in 1914, lacking boots, guns and ammunition. Downtrodden Russians, enraged at being cannon fodder at the behest of an alienated leader born into privilege did not waste time — overthrowing their autocracy in 1917 and ending the War very soon after.
Our health systems have been gutted and underfunded for decades, in spite of our ageing populations. Although lock-down measures are in place, many remain dangerously exposed. They fear unemployment, deprivation, victimization or worse. Others continue because they can make a difference and their humanity has not been eroded completely by Thatcher’s cold-hearted mantra that ‘there is no such thing as society.’
I have learned many lessons already.
The obvious one is about love, intimacy, family. Who are the most important to you and how do you show this? I have even started writing proper letters again. The food we eat — what are the essentials and how can you organize yourself. More importantly, how much do you really need and can you actually grow some of it yourself? Holidays. Really. Talking to your children — explaining what is going on — now THAT, is a really educational exercise. Community spirit and friendship is another essential lesson to learn. Can there be such a thing in times of social distancing?
And of course, the battle lines — they are being drawn. Will we all be duped into paying for the economic damage, like last time in 2008, when public wealth was shamelessly transferred into private hands? Or will we rise up, overthrow our alienated leaders who care about nothing but defending their own privileges and create a more just society based on the needs of ordinary people? This would mean we have to rediscover our bonds of solidarity, our fighting spirit, the resilience and determination to prove Thatcher was so gravely mistaken.
Among the Covid carnage we hear the echoes of betrayal. Establishment figures within the British Labour Party actively sabotaged their own leader — someone genuinely committed to challenging the status quo. They have now regrouped around a new leadership, which has vowed to return the party to the political center. Great! Unsurprising also. Bernie Sanders has just endorsed Joe Biden, basically gifting Trump a second term in office. Four more years of listening to our pink, plump charlatan-in-chief. Fantastic! What a time to be alive. Will we witness an endgame? Questions and no answers. I am reminded of Gramsci, who famously said:
The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.