crowded street
(Image: Adobe)

Looks at notes for upcoming article, hmm still more to say about this coronavirus stuff, but the lead-in is getting a bit tired. I really need some sort of news hook to show how every aspect of life can be undermined. I wonder what’s on the AAP newsfeed.

Ah. That’ll do…

Ten deaths in the US so far that have been announced. Deaths appear to have slowed or ceased in China, but how would we know?

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Parts of Italy are a ghost town. Two deaths in Oz. Schools and hospitals possibly being closed. Our bizarre and unique obsession with toilet paper (if it’s not some commercial meme) a welcome diversion for a worried world.

We’ll know in a week or two whether the US’ chaotic process of dealing with the virus has mattered or not.

China locked off the whole of Wuhan, and then the entire province it was in. The US let people get on internal flights with their rapidly falling prices. If the Chinese approach made a difference, the virus will burst forth in a hundred different places across the US all at once. 

Amidst all this, and the great Australian toilet paper scare, was the announcement that Australian Associated Press was being wrecked by its major shareholders Nine and News Corp in order to stop cross-subsidising smaller news providers — which was the point of AAP in the first place.

Cue an argument as to whether this is political sabotage for the purpose of greater news control, a commercial decision that could have been avoided, or an inevitable result of the decline of paid circulations as the internet and social media take their toll. 

I support, as any journalist would, the protests by AAP staff, and others in solidarity, against a decision that is obviously against the country’s general interest. But when you take the two together — the virus and the newsagency that would otherwise be reporting on numerous manifestations of the virus — what has to be said is this: all that you thought was solid is melting into air.

Something new is underway.

In recent years, as one social/commercial/cultural institution or condition of life after another has given way, there has developed a form of psychological triage reminiscent of Kubler-Ross’ “denial and bargaining” stages of grief.

Newspapers, universities worthy of the name, inner cities with a mix of class populations, solid working-class jobs, face-to-face shops, non-franchise small businesses, the most vestigial aspect of national self-reliance and independence… all this is going.

On one day, it’s the corner store you’ve been to for years, on the next it’s the collapse of the country’s standard newsagency.

One day, what would once have been a dispute at work to be sorted out turns into a matter of bullying to be legally adjudicated; the next, someone is warning of a pandemic that will threaten the supply chains of much of the means of our life. 

Nothing’s really changing, you say. Then: OK it is, but thus far and no further. Then: OK, it’s changing altogether, but leave me this

But it won’t. The system you’re now in is working off its own logic, and whether it’s the near-immediate crisis of production from a virus, or destroying a century of accumulated practice and social-informational capital with the stroke of a pen, it’s going. 

What is that process? As Lizzie O’Shea explains better than most in her new book Future Histories, it’s the historically contingent development of global capitalism and tech at the same time, and intertwined in such a manner as to make each look like the necessary and inevitable expression of the other.

If a dynamic democratic socialism had won in the west post-WWII, the subsequent rise of tech would have been in a different form, one less inclined to cut along the lines prescribed by a global capitalism that had, from the late 1970s onwards, transformed and undermined the non-capitalist relations of everyday life: free, reciprocal and uncommodified connection, co-operation and exchange.

If that had not occurred then a triple cocktail of commodification, hyper-individualisation and prometheanism would not necessarily have occurred in the way that it has. 

That applies not merely to the transformed world of media, communications and sociality, but to the material production itself.

With coronavirus — and before that Brexit — the world suddenly awoke to the fact that, as the decades had passed since the full implementation of a neoliberal order in the ’90s, the production of the means of life had become so widely exported that states that had — like ours — only recently gained their full political independence had traded away material independence through the wilful demolition of homegrown industries in, well, everything.

The profit imperatives of transnational capitalism drove this, but so too did an ideology of “transcendence” of “total globalisation” that arose from the conjunction of the global market and weightless tech.

The commerce graduates pouring out of the universities parroted Ricardo’s notion of “comparative advantage” of trade, taking no cognisance of the fact that, before the ’70s, anyone who suggested undermining practically everything in the name of cheaper imports/more “choice” would have been seen as stark staring mad.

How was it that as China, the workplace of the world, made clear that its political-economic program was one of world market participation on the road to Chinese economic autarchy, the countries of the West literally dismantled high-tech factories, shipped them eastward and were indifferent as to whether their own national GDP was composed of steel and cars, or financial services and wedding planners?

How, in other words, did “comparative advantage” become a blind ideology in which the means to an end became the end in itself? 

The answer, as far as ideas and culture go, is the tech-specific form global capitalism has taken, and the global market shaping of tech, and the subsequent effects on subjectivity (selfhood), and the notion that freedom is wholly expressed by an increasing range of atomised choices between different products, that foreclose the ability to choose another way of living together at the local and global level. 

The shorter way of saying that is that we live in the sort of dystopia we would be reading about if things had been otherwise.

Global viruses will happen in a global society.

The potential impact they are having now, the utter inadequacy of institutions to deal with them, the decay of notions of common good that makes the dissolution of AAP a simple decision of capital to be accepted with a shrug, are all products of the particular and general history of our time and the people who led us there.

(Of course, one could point out that AAP’s liberal, “non-interpretive” non-reflexive idea of “news” is partly the culprit in this. But that’s for another day.)

It’s time to understand all the cool stuff globalisation and tech offer us isn’t something that goes on top of what will always be there.

They are the virus. They will eat away at anything you ever thought mattered in life. Identifying one’s own need for bargaining and denial is a step in avoiding the final one, that of acceptance.

You wouldn’t read about it. Or you won’t soon.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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