The Roman emperor Theodosius (ruled 379-395 AD) — wow, watching all this Easter malarkey from the banks of the river Styx — must be pissed off.
“They’re venerating Jesus? A composite of some Essene mystic named Jeshua and a few other marketplace prophets? Paul? That travelling salesman of a Judaic-Hellenic philosophical hybrid, deified Platonism? Constantine? He only made this damn spreading cult of Christism legal! I made it bloody compulsorily! That’s how it spread!
“Don’t you understand how things work? I mean Jupiter, Zoroaster, Mithras whoever, has just sent you a huuuuuuuge message about how things transmit, and change, and persist, but are you paying attention? Oh, no. No one remembers Theodosius, yet my action literally made most of you who you are! Dammit! Fake Zeus!”
The advent of the coronavirus has brought the world to a shuddering halt with a speed and thoroughness that many have found first surprising, and then alarming.
This furious machine, enwrapping the world; this vast enterprise of global factory systems, interlocking corporations, vast cities, thousands of planes perpetually in the air, airports like Renaissance trading cities — none of it had the slightest resilience when faced with a virus.
The planes that shuttle us ceaselessly around this system have triple, quadruple, quintuple failsafe systems, which is why they crash so rarely; if one circuit goes, another is doing its work anyway, several layers back.
Our global system has nothing like that. At the first dip in velocity, the engines began to stall and we started to plummet out of the sky, prompting a furious and, behind the scenes, near-panicked response to impose extreme emergency measures.
The lockdowns are thus the failsafe we never had, happening all at once. One whole dimension of society has been put into the induced coma that you may be put into if you are unlucky enough to catch the disease and require a respirator.
With the exponential growth of transmission apparently halted, there are those who would like to restore the system we have, as it was. That, of itself, would not be difficult.
After all, much of the standard processes of life continued. Food distribution, power provision, clothing, tools, sanitation, construction and repair continued as mostly capitalist enterprises of distribution, with a few rules added. But these are, for the most part, low-profit, low-margin essential activities who occupy only a fraction of the employment and activity they once did.
What has been almost entirely lopped off was the discretionary sector of dining, drinking, travel, entertainment and discretionary retail. And with that, the other major sector — finance and banking, powered through mortgage and rent — stalled with equal suddenness.
Like the eerie photos of a cliff of dry rocks on the rare occasions when Niagara Falls is temporarily dammed, this briefest of interruptions has revealed how tenuous and irrational is the system by which we live.
In order to get the necessities which make life possible and remove the brute rule of nature from day-to-day existence, we must participate in a system which, as a whole, has never been chosen, agreed to, or redesigned with any view to satisfying our general desires rather than responding to our particular choices.
The rulers and beneficiaries of this economy want to get the machine restarted as soon as possible. No bloody wonder. Amidst much of the pain and fear from lost work, shortage of cash, children at home, the actual rationale of the system is evaporating day by day.
Our way of life’s dependency on furious motion, and the ever-increasing velocity of turnover and growth, has been made visible. The fact that hundreds of thousands lost their jobs pretty much in an instant has revealed how much of their work involved nothing other than contributing to that velocity — and how precarious that makes seemingly stable employment, careers and lives.
The desire on the part of many to just get their jobs back will surely be tempered by some question as to whether the basic goods of life, and the higher desires and satisfactions, could not be gained in some other way.
Millions know that of course, have known that for decades, and have known that the way they live is unsustainable in every possible sense. The visibility of the system’s paradox — that it offers a plethora of consumer choices, marketed to us as freedom, but no easy route to more dramatic choices such as working hours, or a different mix of paid work and free life-activity — has been apparent since the 1960s, when there was a viable struggle to change it.
The failure of that struggle in the late 1970s and early 1980s created a vacuum into which a pseudo-philosophy of life entered — the one-dimensional cult of Thatcherism/Reaganism/Mt Pelerin/the new right, etc, who combined a commitment to strong national security states under the arch of the Atlantic alliance, with a “free” market national economics and steady globalisation, buttressed by state reinforcement of “traditional” values.
This triad fell apart in the 1990s and 2000s; the animal spirits of unbounded consumer capitalism trashed any attempt to retain traditional cultural framings, or a collective social capacity to value high or non-market culture; full-blown post-Cold War neoliberalism empowered corporations beyond the reach of states, and made elected leaders clients of such; and 9/11 served as a pretext for the self-destruction of Atlantic alliance dominance and legitimacy in the disaster of the Iraq war.
The 2008 crash was the coup de grace. The absence of a real recovery created the possibility of a right-wing populism armed with false will, nostalgia, and anti-elitism.
The rise of the knowledge class in its own right, with its own modes of power and accumulation, made knowledge itself part of the “ruling class” discourse to a vast excluded population rendered surplus to requirements in the West.
Systemic and abstract thinking became the master’s discourse; thus concrete forms of knowing (i.e. conspiracy theories) became folk knowledge, a form of excluded self-affirmation (“not fooled, not fooled”).
Around all this, and as the findings and forecasts from climate change and biosphere destruction made it clear that our global system was wholly unsustainable in the much shorter term than hitherto believed, the system ground on.
To keep it going, a vast amount of money — 12 trillion, 15 trillion, 20 trillion, who knows — via “quantitative easing” was pumped. Chiefly done as bond buybacks, QE chiefly maintained the confidence of the global finance system in itself. Not only did very little of it trickle down to ground-level investment in capital and industrial renewal, it was designed not to.
Economy-wide reinvestment in infrastructure reconstruction now would cause a fresh profit-rate crisis in capitalism so severe as to hasten its necessary transition to a partial post-capitalist form in order to save such capitalism as actually exists.
The result has been property bubbles and inflation hidden in things like student debt, and new layers of luxury which give satisfaction through consumption of the high-price itself — deluxe cinema experiences, vastly inflated live concert prices, ever-pricier dining out, easy money for bullshit franchises, like three separate chains of shops selling nine-dollar donuts, and the like.
Thus, what has all come down in an instant is all the stuff we never needed. Some of it’s good, some of it makes life fun, but down it came. The particular form of the crisis — that what had to be suspended was a dimension of basic sociality essential to life itself — made clear just how much of the economy was dependent on commodifying and co-opting that basic sociality as a form of profit-making, in order to prop up, as capitalist, whole areas of life, in which profit could no longer be made.
The real choice we have never been offered — not, in Australia, since 1981, when the 35-hour week campaign failed — was whether we would like a reduction in the working day, a reshaping of urban spaces, and conduct of social existence so that non-waged activity could become central.
Well, the reduction in the working day is here. Lumpy, irrationally distributed and unwanted in many cases, but here nevertheless. The greatest ally capital had in keeping things going — our addiction, literal addiction, to the satisfaction of “simulacra consumption”, where the only thing being consumed is the actual prices of the thing itself — is being destroyed by the simple effect of empty time.
In response, the cultish irrationalism of the right has become a full-blown mystique of Prometheanism.
The US government simply embodied the magical narcissism of its God President, for a time. Meanwhile, the UK government’s lethally misguided response was steered by the cults of Nietzschean rightism and post-Trotskyist Prometheanism it had invited into its centre, embodied by a prime minister who believes himself immune to illness and who is now, unsurprisingly, in intensive care.
The mystifiers grasp at outlier studies, fast-tracked repurposed medications, and the ludicrous suggestions that the whole world will suspend live animal markets, in desperate attempts to avoid the truth: that we are exposed to a form of being for whom the planet’s biota is one large petri dish wired up by a thousand international airports.
The mirroring modernist fantasies of classical liberalism and “humanist faith” Marxism have been shown to be artefacts of a bounded historical period, now concluded, when human control of nature was still scaled to a degree, and not now bracketed by the transformation of the atmosphere at one end, and the ceaseless recombination of rapid-replicator molecules at the other.
The left has by and large responded rationally; the right with bitter snark, and a deep dive into two centuries of social Darwinism, cosmism, immortalism, death-cultism, every hobbyhorse dragged up from the fetid waters of the modern counter-enlightenment.
They may succeed in getting us “back to work” without any substantial change in the way we live. But what then? The virus is still in control. Without a consciously worked-out strategy for scaling down lockdown, it may simply revive, and with a renewed punch.
What then? Could whole societies brazen it out, or do contemporary forms of knowledge make that impossible? After all, if you think an illness is bad spirits, or miasmic dust, or moral weakness, or lack of chi, a certain amount of fatalism can carry you through.
But if you know, as matter of the general intelligence, that standing in a crowded carriage or a cafe makes you a transmitter/receiver of a rapid replicator indifferent to your life or death, what then?
The shadow has fallen, and De Chirico like, etched out the melancholy of the contemporary: our happiness within the system recently suspended relies on it being in contradiction to the deeper things of life that we want to preserve, create and augment: a living culture, the lives of children extending beyond it and carrying it with them, the sheer experience of being alive, the freely chosen acts of embodied human beings.
The time lag of climate change has allowed us to maintain that schizoid split between what we do, and what we would like to keep, make and project. COVID-19 closed that gap. The desperate back-to-work crowd are calling it a “once-in-a-century” event — like the once-in-a-century fires and heatwaves we are now having every five years.
Viruses have been experimenting with us since the introduction of the Boeing 747 in 1970 doubled air traffic in a matter of months, and brought HIV (seven-year incubation) to the West. SARS, and MERS followed new openings, such as China entering the WTO, and the uptick from the worst of the 2008 crash.
Viruses don’t depend on a high death rate, but they can generate one if that will ensure widespread transmission — through explosive bleeding/vomiting. What if the next one has features of everything that’s been tried to date?
Even a 5% mortality rate and a R-0 of two or three would make the way we managed this one impossible to replicate, and the whole system would come to a halt, and have to be reorganised as an emergency authoritarian order.
What if that is five years away? Isn’t it simply morally and existentially necessary that we devise some sort of social reconstruction out of what might have been a lucky prelude — rather than going back to the ludicrous ramshackle system we’ve been chugging along?
We have Easter because the Roman empire, in the 300s, realised that the only way to survive at all was to change its form entirely, and become the viral infection of monotheism to which it had played host body.
We are going to have to change to be even a part of what we have been and want to keep being. It is risen. It will keep rising.