Thinking Outside the Crisis: Introducing a New Series

This column introduces a series of commentaries that create space for positive futures by thinking against the grain of the pandemic.

Crisis talk is everywhere right now, and no wonder. People across the world are suffering greatly due to Covid-19. The staggering death toll in Italy and Spain has been overtaken by that of the United States, where the shock of sheer numbers is compounded by images of mass graves in New York.

In Canada, we have been particularly devastated by the impact of the virus in long-term care homes, and deeply saddened by the thought of people dying alone. Then there are the heartbreaking stories of health care workers in full PPE struggling to care for infected patients, some medical workers foregoing even the comfort of living with loved ones during an intensely stressful time.

For many of us, gratitude and sadness are matched by anger at the continued failure to support, protect, and adequately compensate the cleaners, service workers and others, who are putting themselves in harm’s way so we can meet our daily needs. Again, the US reveals inequities especially starkly. But people in this province are also seeing these workers in new ways.

And if viruses have no respect for class or status, their impacts map all too neatly onto socioeconomic inequities. Covid-19 is no exception. Many of the non-communicable conditions that make people vulnerable to dying from the virus correlate with lower socioeconomic indicators, including household income and education level. The ability to physically distance, shop less frequently, “stay home,” and all the other measures being recommended by health officials right now are largely the preserve of the privileged, whether in wealthy nations or lower-income countries, where “informal” and migrant workers have been especially endangered.

Finally, many workers have already lost income. In Canada at least we can take some comfort from the speed at which the federal government created programs of direct support for many if not all who need it. But predictions of a looming economic downturn on the scale of last century’s Great Depression leave many people fearful for the future.

And Yet…

Anyone who frequents the progressive press or runs in left-ish social circles cannot help noticing a different kind of talk, a different set of analyses, emerging. These hinge on the observation that the pandemic has been enabled and driven by capitalism—particularly in the neoliberal form that has dominated the last forty years, or what Lebanese-Christian novelist Amin Maalouf calls “the shipwreck of civilizations.”

Some of these commentaries are hopeful if not certain that the post-pandemic world will foster mass anti-capitalist movements, or at least the rebuilding of social welfare programs. Others are more measured. In an interview with Jacobin, Noam Chomsky, for example, observes vital popular responses in the form of strikes, protests, and community self-help programs in the face of the pandemic. But he also notes that capital is busy organizing a counter-offensive that may yet win the day. Already in parts of this country and in the US, some governments are using the pandemic as cover to advance austerity agendas.

A Diagnostic Moment

In an article in American Ethnology, Sally Falk Moore argues that anthropologists not simply look to the past to explain the present, but that research that is small-scale, local, and focused on the everyday, can also offer insight into what the present itself is producing: “What part of the activity being observed will be durable, and what will disappear?”

Moore identifies “diagnostic events” as an especially helpful conceptual tool. Events are never self-evident matters of “what happens.” Diagnostic events in particular emerge through “ongoing conflicts and contests and competitions and the efforts to prevent, suppress or repress these.” In this way, diagnostic events are moments when we can identify attempts to bring into being a new order—as well as counter-efforts to secure existing arrangements.

We are currently in the throes of a diagnostic event.

On one side, we have a set of critical, even insurgent, accounts that approach the pandemic as itself diagnostic of a host of failures of capitalism with a view to transformation. These failures include, among others, inadequate social welfare, generalized precarity and profit-driven health care, as well as habitat loss and climate breakdown (see here, here, and here). In Mike Davis’s analysis, these comprise a set of inextricably linked “convergent crises.”

At the same time, there is the struggle to establish the meaning of the pandemic and the causes of its miseries. To return to Chomsky, will people’s experiences of social breakdown sustain the radical alternatives being organized by Amazon workers? Or will the “con-man in the office” of the newly “soulful corporation” win the day?

Along with other forms of activism, participating in this interpretive struggle is a form of essential political work right now. The work is urgent. Even as the progressive press brims with trenchant critique and hopes for a brighter tomorrow, the World Bank—with its record of wrenching profit from pandemics—is making the case for a post-Covid world in which its version of “recovery” will be hastened by “structural reforms” that include the elimination of “excessive regulations, subsidies, licensing regimes, trade protection or litigiousness” that get in the way of “markets, choice and faster growth prospects during the recovery.”

Meanwhile, the very industries that helped get us into this mess are seeking to profit from it, either directly or by positioning themselves as essential to recovery. In this province and nationally, that means the oil industry is lobbying hard for recovery dollars and other forms of assistance on the basis that it is crucial to our way out of the crisis.

Thinking Outside the Crisis

Vital as the political work is, we must clear some space for thinking outside the crisis.

In no way does that mean denying the human costs of the pandemic. It means asking instead about the historical conditions that made these possible, as well as asking what crisis narratives do. That means not assuming the only question we need to ask is “what went wrong?” (see Janet Roitman). It also means understanding how human misery can be created by things working to design.

Joseph Masco observes that “crisis” has been a near-permanent condition of 21st century politics. As such, it has served as a conservative modality in support of existing structures, blocking thought by continually demanding “an emergency response to the potential loss of a status quo.”

Nuclear weaponry and climate change are Masco’s focus: existential dangers that, far from being inevitable, derive from “state action and inaction,” and “a set of values and choices that have produced multi-generational negative outcomes.” Our critical task, he says, is to help imagine another politics with “the capacity to generate positive futurities” that can invigorate collective action and help “reactivate the world-making powers of society.”

This column introduces a series of commentaries that contribute to that work, in and against the grain of the pandemic. Contributors will explore a range of questions, addressing—among many others—issues of northern housing, food supply chains, “cosmolocalism,” the potential for democratizing urban infrastructure, public policy and finance, the exclusions that can be smuggled in through “universal” relief efforts, and what we might learn from past pandemics.

In the first substantive commentary, Brett Favaro makes the case that it is past time for the oil industry—and any of us who have pinned our hopes on it as an economic saviour—to stop looking for loopholes and fully commit to decarbonisation. Just as we must receive the recent Oceanex debacle with scepticism, Favaro warns against industry attempts to capitalize on “the crisis” by self-positioning as a Covid-19 victim deserving of rescue. But Favaro does not present the industry and its workers as enemies. Instead, he includes them as vital contributors to the collective work of building a decarbonized future.

Thinking Without Guarantees

This last point is vital if anything durably good is to come out of our current problems. As Jonathan Smucker puts it, if we make our politics a clubhouse for the enlightened few, we not only set ourselves up for political failure: we replicate the very elitism we want to challenge. But as Smucker also says, for real change, we need power, and power brings moral dilemmas and risks.

Thus, in an upcoming contribution, Samantha Breslin offers a reflective insider’s account of how data, which has become so central to our experience of the pandemic, does not simply describe the situation we are in but also helps create it. As such, it also conditions our ability to think in ways that are more on the side of equity and justice—or less so. As with climate change, public health data can both reveal the inadequacy of a national response and fortify the national imaginary.

In short, nothing is guaranteed. As Chomsky points out, labour movements have achieved positive change in the past. But these advances—some of which have been reversed—have often brought compromises that stabilized the existing system in ways that benefitted some at the expense of others, notably racialized people and women. And of course, we still live in a settler colony. Still, however valuable pessimism of the historically informed intellect may be, we must not capitulate to a politics of resignation that ultimately only serves the interests of neoliberalism.

In other words: our work is cut out for us.

Photo: Great Riot of 1932, Colonial Building, St. John’s. The Rooms Provincial Archives of Newfoundland & Labrador.

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