Is there not something discordant in seeing the welfare state suddenly regaining its lost composure to promote public health measures, regardless of the cost to big industry and high finance?
Over decades, did we not see this same welfare state abdicate its role as guardian of the common good and show its complicity with the most exploitative practices of big business and moneyed interests? It plunged into the oil economy by aggressively financing urban sprawl, subjecting land use and territorial planning to automobile transport and repeated airport expansions for the benefit of oil companies that it excessively subsidized.
It has ignored alarming public health phenomena such as air pollution and junk food, and has paid little heed to workplace stress in a context where workers are psychologically overwhelmed by competition and aggressive management methods. The obsession with growth led it to deprioritize anything that was not in shareholders’ interests.
A planet-wide shock was needed to force the state to suddenly remember its prerogatives, and to suspend the imperative of capital accumulation. This came in the form of a virus that recognized neither social class, nor borders, nor ethnicity; one that struck fast and hard enough to capture the imagination.
It is a response from nature’s economy to an Anthropocene order that has spread across the globe, linking all inhabited regions in thousands of ways, and seeking to dispose violently of both living things and constructed communities.
No doubt we are witnessing an epidemiological phenomenon that has given rise to a claim to rationality in the reactions of political leaders, their specialized officials, and the scientific community. No doubt that what we are seeing cannot be reduced strictly to issues of public health. The COVID-19 virus is also a triggering factor that allows for long-buried measures to be deployed in plain sight.
At the symbolic level, the emergence of these harmful molecules has openly triggered both a display of anxiety and a large-scale realization about an ideological, capitalist and production-driven order that cannot last. We must no longer simply await the coming apocalyptic collapse of a system, but understand what process of exponential erosion we find ourselves in here and now.
The time has come. We must stop treating the sky like a dustbin, living beings like cattle, the earth like a mere down payment of natural capital, the waters like a stock of fish, and the forests like storehouse of timber. We know that water levels are reaching critical thresholds, that both large mammals and vital insects such as bees are disappearing in massive numbers, that the air is becoming unbreathable in some places, and the water, toxic.
Our era will not escape the consequences of hubris; by tipping over into excess, we must necessarily come to a tragic end. The viral episode that confronts us is but a preview of the utter ruin towards which Western capitalism is pushing humanity and other species.
The alarm sounded by this virus reminds us that global capitalism rests on very few certainties, that it benefits giants with feet of clay. The smallest thing can disrupt the machine, and the globalized interconnections that allow an oligarchy of shareholders to effortlessly reap opulent profits year after year make the whole world vulnerable.
And the consequences are all the more dramatic in that the Western ruling class has completely dismantled its industrial apparatus only to redeploy it in Asia where cheap labour allows it to operate as if it were the 19th century, reducing the state’s role to a mere administrator whose job is to legitimize business acquisitions and formalize commercial operations.
Despite the unpaid wages caused by the current crisis, the losses incurred by small artisans and medium-sized businesses, the diminishing forecast of states’ tax revenues, in the end, what comes out of this is a life-saving break. Dug up, dynamited, overturned, diverted, exploited, poisoned and polluted, the planet needs a pause.
Gaia, faced with capital, is now experiencing her #MeToo moment. These days, we are putting an end to the demented rhythm of the politics of growth and international competitiveness. Down with all those years spent selling things that no one needs, pillaging the earth, depriving ourselves collectively of that which is most dear: quality time with loved ones and to pursue sensible activities!
This perspective that the model can break down should be thought of as an opportunity. With frugality, restraint and humility, through concepts of mutual aid that will ward off the tendency towards fascism and civil war, humanity will think of this century as the time to put an end to the industrial, extractivist and commercial capitalism that threatens us in its globalized form, and contemplate new modes of organization on a regional scale.
Fernand Braudel, the historian of the long-term cycle, followed the accordion-like demographic shifts of Europe from the Middle Ages to modernity, in particular epidemic cycles and their link to famines. He was interested in observing how human beings had set themselves up as masters among the mammals, by domesticating some, and driving others away, if they did not eradicate them; yet we have been unable to entirely control those minute species that can infiltrate and disrupt our lives. It is this long-term perspective that the spread of a virus provokes, like the one we are seeing today.
Collective memory recalls the atrocious suffering from the Spanish flu, the plague, leprosy, malaria, and so forth, and projects itself into a future that guarantees no certainties. Yet it is by projecting our conscience at this scale that we will succeed in seeing this future as an opportunity, insofar as its anticipation also involves the possibility of an adapted economy, the elaboration of the resulting practices, of necessary modes of organization and of restored traditional skills.
Lucidity and cheerfulness are the vital states of mind for the future. One without the other could prove deadly. A fearful lucidity about a world that is ending will only result in anxiety and panic. Cheerfulness without lucidity would only result in senseless denials that will make us collectively lose the little time we have left. With the profound upheavals we face, thinking of them as an historic opportunity is the best way of making them into something great, instead of simply suffering through them.
Alain Deneault is a professor of philosophy at the University of Moncton (Shippagan) and the author of many books, including L’économie de la nature (Lux, 2019). This article was first published in French by Libération.