A Sense of Endings and Beginnings

A week into lockdown and things are beginning to change. Mornings are late, afternoons are lazier and evenings never end; meditations are filling out the time for Yoga routines and Netflix profiles are strewn with half-finished movies. This state-mandated, state-funded period of idleness is being likened to being called up to serve, but is nothing like that: Such a comparison is really an affront to the idea of service. Instead, this is just one long streak of panic; of the centre not holding and life not going on as usual. With the usual patterns and rules in suspended animation and business talk - and business - being rendered meaningless, space is opening up for unusual questions: Is Capitalism about to end? Is this the death of globalisation? Does it get uglier from here? 

My grandfather's generation would have scoffed at us. They saw through wars and pandemics. But, in fairness, we haven't had a life-ending crisis of our own. Notwithstanding the experiences of those Libyan and Syrian kids whose schools we bomb from time to time, our personal lives were remarkably stable. Most people lived into ripe ages. We even had the luxury of cultivating a complex economy, letting our money work while we sleep. Those assurances are shaken now and therefore, we doubt whether the foundations will survive. In all seriousness, we can ponder whether this is going to be the end of the world.

Being bothered about the end is somewhat bothersome itself. Since the 90s, we have lived with a steady diet of millenarian talk. We invited disruption, celebrated perceived dents in the universe and wanted to tear down business as usual. And, yet, when it arrives, in somewhat mild and mellow form, we seem to be running out of bandwidth. Not just metaphorically, even literally: At this moment of celebration of remote work and digital learning, Wifi networks are snapping under the load. The blood-and-guts human underbelly of e-commerce is showing up. Only a week ago, I was smugly assured: I would have considered the end of the world only when Amazon and Netflix failed. Amazon has now suspended deliveries and Netflix has reduced the streaming quality.

Is this Malthus biting back then? The poor curate chose his moment badly: His observations about how population went up and down somewhat held only up until just about the time he published. Within fifty years of the Malthusian moment, Medical Sciences brought about a pivot in history and urbanization could go about unchecked. Until now, that is: It seems that we are suddenly facing an accumulated Malthusian payback. But, then, why do all the talk about going back to nature sound so suspiciously familiar, similar to the suburbia part of the American dream? Is this a change and a true recognition of the limits of the city, or rather a privileged appropriation of nature for an even greater spread of city mindset?

Frankly, this very infectious but only moderately fatal respiratory virus is unlikely to be the rider of the white horse. This may indeed be Nietzschean 'that which doesn't kill me, makes me stronger' pestilence that saves the modern society from a long decline. This sudden, exogenous shock, by forcing a screeching halt of life-as-usual, may actually afford an economic bounce once a resolution is found. In that sense, it's like the Second World War, a destructive wave that paves the way of a long boom and saves the world from its own, endogenous, corrosive decline under the pressure of interests-as-usual. 

That is not necessarily an optimistic observation. The crisis - and that there is a crisis is undeniable - may indeed strengthen and reaffirm the worst aspects of our political and economic systems. The first rule of Demagoguery is never to squander a crisis: This one will give a bounce to the various tinpot strongmen around the world, giving the bumbling clowns an opportunity to look Churchillian. Despite the global nature of the crisis, this would only enhance national narcissism; instead of thinking in terms of real limits and norms of human intervention in wildlife, we have already 'othered' the virus and indulged in conspiracy theories. Instead of a new public mindedness, a short crisis satisfactorily resolved will be a great conduit for even more public money hoovered away into inflated asset prices and in the pockets of the wealthy. The infectiousness over fatality will encourage selfishness over solidarity, make institutions claw back control over individuals and facilitate legal changes that will be used to peer ever closer into the private. 

The root of this pessimism is the experience of the 2008 Credit Crisis when we proved to be quite good at treating the symptoms but hopeless against the disease. Unlike 2008, when the economic system, even if only for a brief moment, looked irretrievably lost, this time the outcome isn't uncertain. We would eventually find both a cure and a vaccine and it's a question of when rather than if. But our prospect of affecting significant changes with long-term outcomes, without a politically active citizenry (as was the case in 1918 or 1945), is definitely bleak. We may hope that this pandemic would steel us into preparedness for the inevitable ones to follow, but without a collective pressure to change, that is very unlikely to happen.

This moment, in more ways than one, is a glimpse into possibilities of endings - and a beginning. Wildlife claiming back small-town roads, birds are humming in busy cities and broken up nuclear families are going back to joint kitchens. But, at the same time, workers are being dowsed in disinfectant, profiteering is rampant and doctors and nurses are being thrown out of their lodgings for the fear of spreading the infection. For the last fifty years or so, as our personal lives have become stabler, our social lives, under the weight of migration, unequal distribution of opportunities and a flawed ideology of global workforce, have become unstable; this moment is exposing the faultlines and highlighting its risks. Boris Johnson may have recently discovered that there is indeed something called the Society, but that won't change the neoliberal narrative any time soon.

Changing how we think, one person at a time is perhaps the only thing we can hope for. After years of disengagement, the enforced quiet may help us find the disquiet that we conveniently shelved. Our political selves, exiled for economic interests, may use this moment to resurrect, if not in the rage directed at bungling governments then at least just out of sheer boredom. In this festival of endings, that may be the only thing we can begin.


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