When the British surrendered at Yorktown at the close of the Revolutionary War their commander, General Cornwallis, was so distraught that he feigned illness and instead had his subordinate proffer his sword to General Washington. The tenor of the cataclysmic event was captured by the British bands who played the song “The World Turned Upside Down” as the British and Hessian troops marched out to surrender.
And now the Coronavirus pandemic has turned our world upside down. Indeed, in the space of a couple weeks it’s apparent that we live in a completely different place.
Covid-19 is the new “Transformative Event,” in American history. It could involve loss of life and property unprecedented in peacetime and undermine America’s fundamental sense of security. Like Pearl Harbor or 9/11, the pandemic promises to divide our past and future into a before and an after.
Coronavirus has devastated financial markets, especially Wall Street. We find ourselves at the epicenter of three interconnected shocks: A loss of supply; an oil price shock; and now a financial and liquidity crisis.
It’s more than ironic that here we are entering the second financial crisis of my adult life with pretty much the same feral elite in charge.
However, the pandemic will force our neoliberal policy makers to rethink all of their previous shibboleths. When Mitt–(Makers and Takers)–Romney is offering every American a K-note, you can be sure that something has fundamentally changed.
The pandemic has also exposed our reliance on corporate actors in lieu of a representative democracy. Political analyst, Matt Stoller says that “There’s a good amount of grumbling about the state of American infrastructure—collapsing bridges, high-speed rail, etc. But American infrastructure is not just about public goods, it’s about how the corporations that enforce, inform and organize economic activity are themselves organized. Are they doing productive research? Are they spreading knowledge and know-how to people who will use it responsibly? Are they creating prosperity or extracting wealth using raw power? And most importantly, are they contributing to the robustness of our society, such that we can survive and thrive in the normal course of emergencies? The answer to all of these questions right now is no.”
The Coronavirus has also further exposed the corporate media as shameless propaganda organs. Moreover, it’s becoming obvious that the corporate media propaganda machine will not be able to hide the truth from the American people, and the consequences of this crisis will reverberate. Trump can brag how the US is the “greatest country in the world” but the pandemic is revealing the weakness in our reliance on the private sector to save the day, and moreover just how utterly dysfunctional America has become after 40 odd years of neoliberal ideology. And, no, Walmart and Amazon will not save the day.
The pandemic has changed and promises to continue to change our world. However, Rahm Emmanual’s phrase–Never let a serious crisis go to waste–works both ways. Typically, as Naomi Klein pointed out more than a decade ago, the wealthy and corporations they control have used disasters to advance their agenda of cuts, privatisation and deregulation, securing unpopular policies when people are too overwhelmed by disaster to resist.
However, I believe the pandemic is an opportunity for positive change. It can take down the American empire; it can destroy the ideology of our selfish neoliberal market economy; it can jump-start meaningful community-oriented innovation; and it can fundamentally change the way we organize our lives. This is a potent moment — a creative moment. It’s a great chance, if we can individually and collectively find our hearts again.
As we start to enter periods of quarantine and self-isolation – as nations, communities and individuals, all of this should become apparent. It has taken a virus to remind us of what it really means to be most alive and most human.
Going further, in being stripped of what we need most by the threat of contagion, we are reminded of how much we have taken community for granted, abused it, hollowed it out. Ever since Thatcher and Reagan, we have been told quite literally: “There is no such thing as society.” How will that ideology stand the test of the coming weeks and months? How much can we survive as individuals, even in quarantine, rather than as part of communities that care for all of us?
In the meantime, enjoy all the personal opportunities the pandemic is offering. Like time with your loved ones. Or time away from a tedious bull-shit job. Or the ability to slow down and savor life. So much of our hustle-bustle lives involve a lot of stupid shit and worry about things that, in retrospect, are unimportant.
I’m convinced that this crisis will bring out the best and the worst in people. As we go forward why not bring out your best?