(Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

Nothing is more indicative of the desperation being felt by the corporate centre — capital, the state, tame media — than the stories being run about the possibility of a COVID-19 vaccine “this year”.

There would appear to be no real chance of a vaccine this year but scientists, when pressed, will acknowledge the formal case — that there is a very (or vanishingly) small possibility of one.

The switch back to vaccine stories has coincided exactly with the fading of all hope that hydroxychloroquine would turn out to be a miracle drug which we could just pop the moment we feel a bit roni-ry and be back at work that afternoon.

The most recent and largest control trial of the drug has shown that it increased the death rate for coronavirus patients through cardiac deregulation, and the drug’s boosters have gone vewwy, vewwy quiet about the magic pill. That was not before the US government released it for coronavirus use, overriding the FDA and creating supply shortages for the malaria sufferers who actually depend upon it.

The switch from magic pills to insta-vaccines was revived after the ideological right tried, and largely failed, to get support for a quick re-opening, a back-to-work toughing it out, based on a spurious notion of herd immunity that took no account of the real possibility that have the virus confers no immunity to its rapidly multiplying separate strains.

Hydroxychloroquine always had the appearance of what the yanks calls a “hail mary” throw about it, a belief that hanging on to any belief is better than none.

Thus, in this crisis, capitalism is doing what it does best, what it relies on: magical thinking.

Because if it stopped doing that it would start to fall apart. Until a fortnight or so ago, there remained the magical belief that this first onset of COVID-19 would be a single event. Not the virus itself, just the first outbreak, and we could all get back to full-tilt power in a few weeks.

Gradually in the last fortnight or so it’s dawned on people that nothing we do — totally re-open, maintain total lockdown, or somewhere in between the two — makes any difference to the persistence of the virus, it simply changes the course of the thing.

So the corporate centre is caught in a bind: they need things to get restarted to stop the whole extended system of global consumerism collapsing, but they also know — with a quick side glance at reality — that if we were to re-open too fast and be hit with a fresh wave of infection that wipes out many of our hard-won gains, public support for a more comprehensive transformation of everyday life would be strengthened.

Not only would the economy start to be decapitalised — because there would simply be an evacuated degree of demand and accumulation — but the contingent nature of capitalism as a system of social organisation would begin to be visible to a much wider group of people.

Capitalism always was magical thinking. It relies for its valuation on a projected confidence that the future will be like the past in its general form.

It uses the sort of boot-strapping confidence we apply when going for a job interview — knowing that a feeling of certainty that we will get that job will lead us to better performance. (No wonder Paul Bassat, of Seek and Australia-Israeli start-up incubator Square Peg, is so eager for a state-run tracking app to be adopted. What a perfect confluence: a jobs site and a developer of start-ups from Israel, whose tech sector is a world-leader in new ways to pen in people like cattle.)

We disguise that boot-strapping with a mental sleight-of-hand, a willed cognitive dissonance. And thus has market capitalism proceeded for three centuries. In that process, while it is accepted that no one company or venture is guaranteed success, it is accepted that the future guarantees it in general. That becomes what the future is.

Capitalism changes the very nature of being and time; the future becomes a projection of a quantitative change — there’ll be more — but a qualitative stasis: the framework will be as it was.

That applies even to the Marxist conception of a transition from capitalism to socialism, at least in its initial stages.

But COVID-19, its specific settings of infectiousness and mortality, and what appears to be its disturbing powers of mutation and re-infection, has changed the relationship between present and future to a degree that outstrips even the most radical imaginings within modernity.

There seems to be almost nowhere in the vast haul of virus/catastrophe science-fiction which imagines something like lock down and social distancing: disease dystopia is usually of the 28 Days Later zombie-virus character.

In such dystopias capitalism obviously collapses, because all society does.

Here, in our present, society has manifestly not collapsed, but the particular pace, rhythm and process on which capitalism depends has been drained away. Because people are still buying stuff on Amazon, that shift has been minimised and disguised.

If, in Australia and elsewhere, the virus has been well-contained, and driven towards “elimination” (epidemiological elimination is rarely full elimination, smallpox aside; everyday, in the days of air travel, someone was arriving here with polio, for example), then there will be no great disruption — even though we will still have, and must prepare for, renewed outbreaks, as we use trial-and-error around reviving everyday life. 

But the UK and the US may have made themselves hostages to ill-fortune, accumulating such a backlog of cases dues to early failures of tackling the spread.

These failures are a direct product of the philosophy that underlies Anglo-American capitalism and the right: a philosophical individualism that cannot see collective social life as anything other than an aggregation of individuals.

Having no actual thing called “society” to apply measures to, their hopeless response let the virus ran rampant. This may well have committed them to a long series of renewed outbreaks, not without a 28 Days Later-ish character (without zombies, alas).

This next stage will either happen or it won’t. Full-tilt capitalism will either save itself by the skin of its teeth, or a hole will open up in it so wide — a disjuncture between present and the projective future required for investment and accumulation — that a historical crisis of a type no one had predicted will occur.

At that point, it is not that key sections of the economy will have to be socialised, key sections of the will have already been socialised by events — i.e. returned to and made visible as their true nature of collective social production and reproduction — and governments will have no choice but to reorganise around that indisputable fact.

There’s no vaccine against the reality of the human condition, nor any magic, and given a crisis of sufficient endurance, that is what we will come face to face with.

Get more Crikey, for less

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

Join us this week for 50% off a year of Crikey.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
50% off