An empty Times Square during the coronavirus lockdown in New York, March 29, 2020. Photo: Photo Spirit / Shutterstock.com
The defining event of the 2020s has been established in its first few months. This will surely be the coronavirus decade, unless something much worse is heading our way, which is not out of the question.
An epistemic break has occurred, a rupture in the seemingly entrenched mechanisms of neoliberalism. It is no surprise that Lenin’s quote about decades and weeks seems to adorn every other article. Suddenly, unrepentant free-marketers have been usurped by government interventionists, the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps brigade drowned out by welfare statists, the we’ve-had-enough-of-experts dogmatists transformed into epidemiologists and public health professionals. The principle of utility has been completely altered overnight. It turns out that PR consultants, change managers and lobbyists are not particularly useful in combating a global pandemic. Bullshit jobs, as David Graeber calls them, have finally been exposed as fraudulent. We now know the jobs that are essential to a healthy society; governments can no longer pretend.
These rapid developments signify that the 2020s will likely be the defining decade of the century, the moment where humanity irrevocably descends into darkness or pulls back from the brink. The new is about to be born. But are we emerging into a post-capitalist nightmare or is this the beginning of a socialist awakening?
Of course, it might be neither of these scenarios. There is a chance this article might age as well as Ernest Mandel’s claim in his 1976 introduction to the first volume of Marx’s Capital that “capitalism’s heyday is over.” Like Mandel believed that the economic and geopolitical crises of the late 1960s and early 1970s would signal the end of capitalist hegemony, many of us thought the 2008 crisis would precipitate the end of the neoliberal order. It was, however, only re-imagined and consolidated.
Somehow, government after government across the liberal West successfully convinced citizens that social spending and not the financial sector was the primary cause of the economic meltdown. Ruthless austerity, rampant privatization, further financialization, and the increased dismantling of democratic institutions and social welfare were the punishments. Some critical theorists called this the “new neoliberalism,” which, as Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval note in their recent book Never-Ending Nightmare, “openly adopted the paradigm of war against the population.”
There is certainly a chance that the coronavirus pandemic might give way to an even more bloody war against the population, a brutal form of austerity that would make the post-2008 measures seem almost Keynesian.
However, this pandemic is in many ways an inversion of the 2008 crisis. The latter originated in the financial system, which filtered into the economy and then into society at large. It undoubtedly had catastrophic social and material consequences, but the initial crisis was essentially an abstraction, playing out in financial markets seemingly detached from everyday life. But the origin of the coronavirus pandemic is biological, even if it is biology as constructed by global capitalism — by farming practices and live animal transportation and markets. Its initial effects are spatial and social, manifesting in physical places and human bodies. It is from here that it goes on to impact the economy and ultimately the financial system.
The virus forces governments to intervene in the economy to protect the biosocial sphere, whereas in 2008, they could jettison this sphere in favor of protecting the financial system. The virus thus creates a tension at the heart of the neoliberal consensus, where the very interventionist policies that have been dismantled over four decades are the only policies that can save the economy and financial system from ruins. But in doing so, these policies fundamentally alter the shape of the economy. It is no longer the free market economy envisaged by neoliberals — although, it never really was “free” from government intervention — but a state-regulated economy, if even only for a short period.
Coronavirus is therefore very different to any other crisis that has beset neoliberalism in the last four decades. I agree with the political economist William Davies that instead of viewing the coronavirus pandemic as “a crisis of capitalism, it might better be understood as the sort of world-making event that allows for new economic and intellectual beginnings.” My aim here is to imagine how this “world-making event” could annihilate or secure or global future.
In this respect, I am undertaking a kind of thought experiment. It is an attempt to map what 2030 might look like by outlining two, not mutually exclusive, post-pandemic scenarios: post-capitalism and socialism. Neither of these scenarios may eventuate, but I focus on them to emphasize the radical transformation of global society that will inevitably occur in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic. Furthermore, both post-capitalism and socialism have been latent possibilities in the pre-pandemic era, ideas that have been “lying around,” to echo Milton Friedman, to fill the void left by neoliberalism, when it finally dies.
2010s: Post-Capitalist Imaginaries
The adage “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” has been at the heart of much leftist theory since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Capitalist realism has rendered many of us on the left fatalistic and impotent. But this haze slowly lifted in the 2010s. The Occupy movement, Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Syriza — if only briefly — and protests from Hong Kong to Chile made us wonder whether the ends of capitalism and the world were really as entangled as we thought.
Alongside these more hopeful developments, we also witnessed the rapid evolution of digital communication technologies, data harvesting and analysis, election interference and the rise of antidemocratic and ethno-nationalist politics across the West, which made us question whether capitalism might be mutating into something much worse.
The neoliberal turn had trapped capitalism in a death spiral. Labor had become either automated, endless or precarious, used as a means to replace, overload or impoverish humanity. Information was the new commodity form, mined unwittingly by techno-dependent citizens. And, money begot money in a financial system that was completely detached from the production of material commodities. These circumstances painted a picture of a fractious and decentered system. Value was generated both everywhere and nowhere.
As the end of capitalism became a possibility again, the theory of post-capitalism emerged as a useful means to theorize these developments in the 2010s. Paul Mason’s book PostCapitalism (2015) became the touchstone, backed up numerous by other post-work treatises. These theorists asked questions such as: how does capitalism overcome the contradiction between rampant monopolization, financialization, privatization and free and seemingly endless information and services? Has much of contemporary human work become pointless and disconnected from social value? Do we really need to be doing certain kinds of labor when machines could be doing it for us? Are we actually more valuable to parasitic corporations, and increasingly governments, during our “free time,” when we use our phones, computers, smart watches and the like?
For post-capitalists, the capacity of capitalism to adapt has been exhausted in the early twenty-first century. Embedded in neoliberal global capitalism, they argue, are the embryos of a new social system: automation, technology, information. But post-capitalist theorists often disagree on the potentiality of these embryos. We could, perhaps crudely, separate these theorists into two main strands: optimists and pessimists.
The optimists — for example, Paul Mason, Aaron Bastani and Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams — argue that open access platforms like Wikipedia, digital communication networks, The Internet of Things, data sharing and artificial intelligence can lead us into an egalitarian and ecologically sustainable post-work society. Instead of attempting to resist the effects of automation, digitization and unemployment, these theorists propose that we should accelerate them.
In doing so, we expose capitalism’s autoimmunity, because the processes and technologies it currently uses to cheapen human labor and manipulate their behaviors, are also the same processes and technologies that will replace the need for capitalist social relations. Automation, for instance, might currently be used to cheapen human labor, but in the future, it will alleviate the need for most labor. Corporations might presently use technologies and communication devices to charge rental contracts, track citizens, and predict their behaviors, but these technologies also increasingly move us towards a zero-marginal cost society, where many goods and services will be free — the replacement of encyclopedias by Wikipedia is the prime example. According to the outlook of the optimists, we can emerge on the other side of capitalism in a paradise of “fully-automated luxury communism.”
However, the pessimists — most notably, Peter Fleming, McKenzie Wark, James Bridle and we could tentatively add Shoshana Zuboff and Peter Frase to this list — suggest that the post-capitalist future might be even worse than capitalism, with parasitic corporations further monopolizing our collective endeavors, automation used to impoverish workers, work becoming even more pointless, precarious and scarce, data collection used to monitor and punish us, and the earth rapidly disintegrating beneath our feet.
The pessimists suggest that it is all well and good pushing for full automation, unemployment and universal basic income, but none of these things necessary eliminate private interests nor do they seem to provide any alternative to the market as the normative judge of value. And, we might have more free time in a post-work society, but that does not mean we would not spend that time buying more things and further destroying the environment.
This is certainly not to say that either camp is blindly hopeful or nihilistically despondent. The optimists are acutely aware of the role of power in shaping the use of technology and artificial intelligence. They know that an emancipatory post-capitalist future cannot transpire without collective ownership of the technologies of information and artificial intelligence. Likewise, the pessimists recognize that post-capitalism could be a form of liberation if we can build new forms of class consciousness — primarily based, ironically, on shared experiences of work — in the present that can confront and overcome the vast inequalities and injustices of contemporary capitalism. They are just not sure if this is possible under current conditions.
2020: Post-capitalist Nightmare?
In the 2010s, the theory of post-capitalism rekindled hope about the end of capitalism for many of us on the left. But the endpoint seemed in a distant future, with much uncertainty and struggle to traverse in-between. The coronavirus pandemic, however, has abruptly placed the possibility of an endpoint in the here and now. The endless flows of global capital have dried up, major industries — such as aviation and tourism — have been decimated, share prices have plummeted and consumer spending has rapidly declined. On top of this, governments across the world, even those led by free-market zealots, have instigated the kind of economic and social policies — universal income, healthcare funding, industry bailouts, funding of state debts by central banks — that would make Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman turn in their graves. Post-capitalism suddenly seems like a distinct possibility, but in what form?
If we take, for instance, the technological and informatic side of the pandemic response, we can see reasons to fear that we are sliding towards the pessimistic end of post-capitalism. The UK government has been employing tech firms to process confidential patient data and is developing an app for citizens to record their symptoms as part of their pandemic response. There are multiple reports of countries across the Eurozone using data from telecommunication corporations to track the movements of European citizens with the virus. Shin Bit, Israel’s internal security agency, have been authorized to tap the phone records of suspected infected citizens. China has utilized drones and CCTV to keep track of those with the virus. And countries such as the US, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea have been using credit card information and phone location data to track the spread of the virus. Many tech experts have suggested that it will be very difficult to scale back the surveillance measures put in place during the pandemic.
We have also witnessed some ominous language from governments around the world. The New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who has been rightly credited for her proactive response to the pandemic, recently confirmed that her government were looking to user-based apps to track people during the crisis: “It’s about working with those technological solutions but also overcoming some of those issues around people’s privacy and building a system that New Zealanders are willing to use.”
The use of “overcoming” is significant, as it implies that the right to privacy is expendable. Here, Ardern inadvertently echoes the rhetoric of Silicon Valley. In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg told us that “privacy is no longer a social norm.” The behavior of tech companies in the ensuing decade exemplifies the pervasiveness of that belief in Silicon Valley and beyond. During this pandemic, governments are following a similar cultural logic.
Privacy is certainly problematized during a pandemic. On the one hand, the use of personal information and data to track the virus makes a lot of sense, and many of us would be relieved if it helped save us from the infection and prevented the loss of lives. On the other hand, the past tells us that these states of exception have a nasty habit of becoming the norm. Surveillance by data collection was at first an emergency measure, especially in the wake of 9/11, but two decades later has become a multi-billion-dollar industry.
This last point is key to understanding a flaw in the optimistic variant of post-capitalist theory. Information might be abundant, some of it might even be free, but its abundance creates more and more avenues for capitalist intrusion. Even when we share information freely or engage in peer-to-peer production, we generate other surplus information — location and personal data — that can be used for other ends.
In this context, do we expect in the aftermath of this pandemic that suddenly all this information collected for the purpose of tracking the virus will suddenly be cast by the wayside? Or, might this information be very useful to the nudge theorists and choice architects that have an increasingly prominent role in contemporary policymaking? And more simply, might this information be used by corporations to sell us more shit?
It is not merely the aftereffects of government surveillance that should concern us. As we stay at home, we become more dependent on our digital and communication technologies. Amazon has witnessed a huge increase in demand in the last months. It is looking to hire at least 100,000 new workers to keep up and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has increased his fortune by $24 billion in a matter of weeks. But Amazon is not simply an online shopping platform. It is one of the largest data collection companies in the world, storing and analyzing huge amounts of personal data on how their customers spend money. It uses this data to predict what customers might buy next, nudging customers towards their next purchase — “you might also like…” — with the help of “one-click” ordering, which enables the company to make its shipping and distribution much more efficient.
Likewise, streaming services like Netflix have witnessed a massive surge in traffic, with the streaming company now more valuable than the oil giant ExxonMobil. And like Amazon, Netflix uses data analytics to shape future customer behavior and even to decide on whether to renew a show for another season. Netflix not only knows what shows we watch, but how we watch them, when we pause, stop, or skip. They process this information to feed their personal recommendation system, which is then used to retain customers by presenting them future content similar to previously watched shows. For companies like Amazon and Netflix, coronavirus will be very good for business.
Similarly, platforms like Zoom and Skype have become necessities during the pandemic, allowing family and friends to keep in contact and, perhaps more importantly for businesses, enabling many people to work from home. But the longer the pandemic goes on, the more some industries will realize that work can be as efficient when the costs of the work location can be forced onto the workers themselves. These fancy offices and buildings, businesses might decide, are extraneous assets, ones that could be sold off and transformed into profits. Likewise, the pandemic will give several industries the excuse to accelerate online services.
Many universities across the globe, for instance, have been steadily incorporating distance-learning programs into their course offerings, enabling them to reduce the costs of on-campus teaching and maximize the numbers of the more lucrative international students. By the end of this decade, lecturers and teaching assistants might become very familiar with their spare room, if they have one, and the students will become increasingly two-dimensional. We might even see the rise of nowhere universities, with no physical location, just an IP address.
If anything, the present exemplifies that information, data collection, the sharing economy, and “collaborative commons” have taken us further away from any kind of socialist society. Those who hold power, as McKenzie Wark notes in her recent book Capital is Dead, are those who control information. This new ruling class does not need workers, renters or consumers, but simply requires everyone to use their phones, laptops and smart watches, or turn on Alexa as they wander around the house talking into thin air. We generate information value, and therefore profits, by doing so. There are no salaries or recompense for our unwitting labor, just mass exploitation.
The post-capitalist nightmare that has been slowly emerging in the early twenty-first century has rapidly been brought into existence by the coronavirus pandemic. Far from moving us to a world without work, the pandemic will likely re-imagine the nature of work, making it scarcer and more precarious. The necessary intrusion on privacy to track the spread of the virus will only increase state and corporate surveillance powers in the aftermath. And the tech monopolies that currently dominate our societies will consolidate their wealth, eliminating the conditions for any kind of competition that might threaten their hold on the market.
2020s: Socialist Awakening?
Can we awake from this nightmare? Yes, but not without some serious political work on the left.
While the pandemic is seemingly taking us towards a post-capitalist dystopia, it has also generated a series of phenomena and conditions that can invigorate a socialist politics. Most significantly, we have witnessed the sudden return of a mass social consciousness that had been entirely obliterated by neoliberal political rationality. We are inescapably aware of our relationship with others and that how we behave as a collective in the present will shape the future we emerge into after the pandemic. This social consciousness is a prerequisite for any kind of successful socialist politics.
A largely younger generation have embraced this politics in the Anglosphere and Europe in the last five years, primarily because they all share the misery of being the children of capitalist realism. They realize that their individual lives will only improve by changing the conditions in which all lives are lived. The coronavirus pandemic provokes a similar realization, but across vast swathes of the rest of society.
Suddenly, the degradation of health systems, the precarity of work, and economic inequality have sharpened in the eyes of most citizens when cast in the light of a deadly disease. This is of course not to say that suddenly everyone has turned into a socialist during the pandemic. We’re not all Marxists now. Rather, there has been a shift in social conditions that gives socialist politics more legitimacy.
Equally important is the globality of the pandemic. The pandemic transcends national boundaries, albeit as borders are fortified against the spread of the virus. These are not connections like those figured by global capitalism — outsourced labor, import/export, tax havens — but genuine social connections and solidarity, the kind of internationalism that a lasting socialism demands.
The socialist left has widely jettisoned this internationalism in the neoliberal decades. Even recently, we heard the Labour leadership candidate, and heir to the Corbynist project, Rebecca Long-Bailey call for a “progressive patriotism” in the UK, and Bernie Sanders has faced criticism for an inward-looking socialist politics in the US.
Mike Davis has been an outspoken critic of the contemporary left’s lack of internationalism, particularly in the US. While he has been excited by the return of socialism to mainstream political discourse, he writes that “there’s a disturbing element of national solipsism in the progressive movement that is symmetrical with the new nationalism. We talk only about the American working class and America’s radical history … [s]ometimes this veers close to a left version of America Firstism.”
When viruses can overcome national borders with ease — mimicking, it must be noted, the global mobility of capital — it should make us question why we think of health care as a national problem. When the majority of people across the globe are in a form of lockdown or isolation, is it productive to attach definitions of the social to national identity? Even the right has questioned this logic. The former, and regularly ridiculed, UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has called for the establishment of a global health system, noting: “One of the big lessons from this will be that when it comes to health systems across the world, we are only as strong as the weakest link in the chain.”
Globalization should make a global health system seem plausible. But routinely, globalization has merely enhanced the avenues for capital accumulation for the most privileged in the Global North and further occluded citizens from the Global South from sharing in the riches of the Global North. In many ways, global capitalism has created two kinds of global citizens: nomads and migrants. The nomads embrace the borderlessness of global capitalism, where other countries can be used to invest, hide or spend money. In the meantime, national borders in the Global North are widely reinforced so that the most privileged can use the border to protect their financial and cultural capital. Migrants are the casualties of this privileged nomadism.
The pandemic exemplifies that the world cannot be contained, and that the well being of people in one region is connected to the lives of those in other regions. Rather than courting the xenophobic vote, the left must use the current global conditions to build a new internationalism that views the global in terms of social solidarity and not economic value. Policies like healthcare, social welfare, universal basic income can only be truly inclusive and supportive if, as Dardot and Laval suggest, they are “conceptualized as global commons,” because the globe is already immersed in the social reproduction of neoliberal capitalism.
The stratification of labor during the pandemic should also give hope to those of us who imagine a socialist future. It almost goes without saying that the power of labor has been crushed in the neoliberal decades, especially through the destruction of unions and the deregulation of industry. The division of labor augmented, work became increasingly precarious, and a whole swathe of pointless — and sometimes generously paid — labor developed in industries like public administration, PR and HR. At the same time, the right became the orators of a version of workerism, not the one imagined by the Italian Marxist autonomists, but one that replaced the collective proletariat with the individual entrepreneur, and championed the spiritual value of the work ethic.
But the pandemic has completely re-ordered the value of different forms of work. Suddenly, the “key” or “essential” jobs are many of those professions that have been decimated by decades of privatization and austerity measures. Nurses, doctors, teachers, cleaners and care workers now have the vaulted social status they deserve. These abrupt transformations create the potential for the left to regain the workerist narrative. The key here is utility. The question going forward should be: what jobs are really useful for a healthy society and not simply a vibrant economy? This question has been asked by politicians such as Sanders and Corbyn, critical and political theorists, and by labor unions and social movements that confront precarity, but it takes on much wider significance in the midst of a pandemic.
The jobs and industries that have become central to the effort to combat the virus have never had such goodwill. Surely the next time the nurses and care workers strike there will widespread public support. If this goodwill can be bolstered by collective action within and across these industries, especially with resurgent unions, then labor will develop a power to shape the economy and society in a way it has not been able to since the mid-twentieth century.
Alongside the revaluation of labor during the pandemic, class divisions and inequality have been accentuated in a way like no other crisis during the neoliberal decades. The elite have been quick to pedal the idea that this illness is indiscriminate — which is possibly true on a very basic biological level — and that power and money are no defenses against it.
The story is much different on an economic and social level. The US multi-payer healthcare system, for instance, has left uninsured workers and the unemployed in a perilous situation as emergency departments are overrun during the pandemic. Workers in the gig economy, and who do not qualify for government wage subsidies, are even more precarious than usual. Those who are allowed to work, such as rideshare drivers and delivery people, will be faced with the impossible dilemma of having to work to survive on a day-to-day basis but in doing so, increasing their risk of contracting and spreading the virus. In the UK, five million self-employed workers were left out of the original government wage subsidies, only to be told they would receive aid but not until June. And, as always, the homeless have been largely ignored in most governmental policies to combat the pandemic.
The level of vitriol against celebrities who have tried to reassert their relevance during the crisis — by posting videos of themselves baking in their mansions, singing tone-deaf classics, or encouraging us to donate money to our local hospital — hints at a nascent post-pandemic class antagonism. We might all be in this together, but not even close to equally. We must try and keep this fact in the public consciousness in the aftermath of the pandemic.
Alongside a greater awareness of economic inequality, the ecological reprieve from the decommissioning of the global economy is a boon for supporters of the Green New Deal. Images of clear blue skies in cities that are usually covered in smog provides a glimpse of how quickly the environment can return to livable when it is not endlessly expropriated for capital accumulation. It provides socialist politics with evidence of an ecologically sustainable future.
And finally, the economic devastation of the pandemic will be immense. Before the coronavirus outbreak, many economists predicted that we were soon heading for a recession. The pandemic has translated soon into now. Of course, those in the most precarious situations are the ones who will be most severely affected by a recession. But many others in seemingly secure situations will also slide into precarity.
Actually existing neoliberalism has walked a tight rope throughout its tenure as the dominant political rationality, delicately balancing the hoarding of wealth at one (very small) end of the humanity, while immiserating vast sections of humanity at the other end. In-between, there have been just about enough people doing okay for the system to retain its hold on many societies.
The Occupy movement threatened to throw neoliberalism off the tight rope, but it managed to just about hold on. But the coronavirus will surely end this balancing act. The precariat will grow, which is, on the one hand, tragic, but on the other, politically expedient. Socialist politics must harness the heterogeneous concerns of this growing social class if it is to finally tip neoliberalism off its tightrope in a way that might secure a hopeful future for humanity.
2030: Socialist Post-Capitalism?
What will the world look like in 2030?
Who knows? But the future is once again on the table for leftist politics. The end of history was never really the end of history. A new authoritarian and nationalist right seemed to be instituting a new political and economic rationality in the world’s most powerful states, but now this same right is enacting a form of interventionist government spending that outflanks recent left-wing manifestos. The center- and soft left are discombobulated, as the right adapts on a day-to-day basis. Even the right has conceded that some form of socialism is the best way forward, even if this is a bastardized version that negates many of the key tenets of a socialist society. As the right adapts, many on the liberal left still recoil from the apparently outlandish ideas of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, who are, in truth, more social democrats than socialists. Perhaps this is the decade that the socialist left can wrestle back the political imagination from the right.
One way to do so is through a blending of socialist politics and post-capitalist ideals into a form of socialist post-capitalism. This might seem like a tautology, as any socialist society is by its very nature post-capitalist. But my point here is that post-capitalism is not necessarily socialist. Despite the best persuasion of the optimists, it is difficult to believe that full automation, enhanced information sharing, technological advancement and zero marginal costs will necessarily relieve us from work, let alone lead us into a socialist future. Utopian thinking is of course essential, and now is precisely the time for political imaginaries to take the theoretical stage. But dystopias are equally as imperative in this development.
Many Marxists have made the mistake of prioritizing the economic over the political, as have neoliberals. This is precisely why actually existing neoliberalism differs substantively to the theories of its early proponents. They would have detested the monopolistic and financialized version of capitalism that exists today. The thing is, when economic theory is put into practice it always intersects with power. And when it does, a process of translation takes place, which often manipulates the original ideas into more pragmatic policies.
Socialist post-capitalism, however, prioritizes the political over the economic or technological. It sets up the optimistic aspects of post-capitalist as goals but reminds us that these goals can only be achieved through the advancement of socialist politics and not forms of technological determinism. The theory of post-capitalism promises so much; it presents a vision of an emancipatory future where humans are freed from capitalist exploitation. But if current power structures remain the way they are, or even veer further towards corporations and tech giants, then post-capitalism will be translated into more exploitation and immiseration.
The only way the utopian vision of post-capitalism can be realized is through the transformation of power on a political level. The strengthening of the democratic socialist project is one step. Social movements and grassroot politics will play an equally important role. These movements had been gathering pace across the globe prior to the pandemic and will certainly return in the aftermath. Everything from mutual aid networks to rent strikes can help legitimize socialist politics, especially as the kind of measures required to reinstate neoliberal hegemony will cause widespread social inequality and destitution. In particular, protests against the owners of information — such as those by Google employees or the “right to be forgotten” court cases in parts of Europe and Asia — will accentuate the need for democratic control of the technologies in question.
Socialist politics, in the various guises mentioned above, must be the driving force of the coronavirus decade. If we are to reach 2030 intact and with any hope, then it is the pandemic’s unleashing of a renewed social consciousness, internationalism, labor movement, ecological sustainability and precariat class consciousness that can get us there, not further automation, information sharing and data collection.
In other words, a mass socialist awakening is the only thing that will save us from a post-capitalist nightmare.
Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/coronavirus-decade/