The New Normal: The World After COVID-19

Part 1: the Diagnosis

By Hendrik Wagenaar & Barbara Prainsack

Three months into the COVID-19 crisis, many people are wondering: What will the world be like once the virus has been conquered? At the same time, there is a strong sense that the crisis is something we have brought upon ourselves — in the sense that we have created the circumstances that allowed the virus to hit us so hard, health-wise, and economically. (That it hits some of us so hard, we should say, because the crisis affects us very unequally.) As a graffiti in Hong Kong reads: “There can be no return to normal because normal was the problem in the first place.”

In four consecutive posts to this blog, we will be trying to spell out what it takes to ensure that the new normal is better than the old. That we do not make the same mistakes twice. In this first blog post we present our diagnosis of the problem. In the next three posts we will suggest solutions.

While the last 40 to 50 years have seen phenomenal economic growth and technological development, the way we have organised our society and economy has eaten away at the very foundations that made this expansion possible. These foundations are environmental, social and moral. Tens of thousands of books, blogs and newspaper commentaries have been written to diagnose the destructive process that has resulted in environmental degradation, unprecedented inequalities in wealth and income, the hollowing out of labour contracts and the associated decline in wages, social misery for millions through tight fiscal policies, and the erosion of democracy in many countries. It should not have taken COVID-19 for us to realise that things have to change. That the economy that we have created is killing people and the planet. So why haven’t we done anything about it? Why are we continuing to vote parties and people into power who increase the problem, instead of solving it?

The reason for our inactivity has been twofold. First, while we understand the individual parts of the problem, we have a hard time grasping how they are interconnected. Yes, we know a lot about the destructive effects of CO2 or NO2 on global warming. We know how the planet’s life support systems — soils, oceans, rainforests, pollinators, wind currents, biological diversity — are interconnected. We begin to understand the effects of ocean warming on weather systems and the knock-on effects on draughts and storms. We also know that the carbon and mining industries spend vast sums of money on lobbying for the continued extraction and use of carbon fuels and that governments, and that the global financial system keep financing these industries. Yet, how all these elements hang together through complex dynamic networks have so far escaped most us (albeit not all: People such as Ann Pettifor, Kate Raworth, and Adam Tooze have provided alarming and compelling diagnoses of how the different parts hang together, and how the features and dynamics within different fields of policy and business reinforce those in others).

[image by MasterTux from Pixabay]

The human brain is not hardwired to grasp complexity — and the brain of most politicians (and administrators), apparently even less. How things are connected is even harder to grasp when different complex systems on different scales and operating on different timelines are nested inside each other. A dizzying abyss opens up before our feet. Perhaps it is only human that procedures for collective decision making are almost uniformly geared towards manipulating and evaluating single factors. And even when multiple factors are looked at in conjunction, they are treated as if they operated in isolation. The spread of the novel Coronavirus is treated as a process within the expertise of virologists, as if it weren’t dependent on social and economic factors too. As if it wasn’t the case that people with pre-existing conditions are more vulnerable to the disease — and those with lower incomes, worse access to healthcare, and lower social status prior to COVID-19 are more likely to suffer from them. And this is just one example. Politicians and whole governments wager their careers and reputation on promises such as: “We will bring government debt under control.” But promises such as these, based on bad economics, have countless negative consequences — whose systematic study has escaped every discipline, including the policy sciences. This is despite the fact that complexity has become somewhat of a buzz word lately: A fascinating academic cottage industry has sprung up around the notion of complex systems. But the practical results of this subdiscipline are downright disappointing.

The second reason why we didn’t tackle the problematic aspects of our systems prior to Corona is moral. 40 years of neoliberal market capitalism has dulled our moral sensibility. The sporadic rallying cries to sacrifice the old and weak for the economy that spring up in the US here and there, are only the most visible manifestations of what has been a long, slow and largely surreptitious process. Social media are merely the more extreme manifestation of the heartlessness and indifference with which we treat each other. The language of public policy, an emblem of how the state relates to the public, is cold, indifferent and technocratic. There is no space for values such as empathy, altruism, community, compassion or — until the COVID-19 crisis at least — solidarity as normative guides to collective decision making.

Perhaps one way to capture this sea change in moral judgement is to take a historical perspective. Just as the everyday language of, let’s say, the 1930s or 1950s shocks us for its overt display of racism and sexism, 50 years from now, people will experience a similar historical shock when we read how governments in the early 21st century demonised welfare recipients and ethnic minorities, condemned hundreds of thousands to a precarious existence by abolishing worker protections and fighting unions, or heartlessly deported long-standing black citizens out of the country on the pretence of missing paperwork. People will be appalled by how early 21st century voters watched helplessly while politicians destroyed public sector institutions by handing them over to private corporations, or while immensely wealthy and powerful transnational corporations got away with avoiding to pay taxes. They will feel vicarious shame for how their previous generations gave a public good, money, into the hands of private actors, banks, and repeatedly spent hundreds of billions of tax payers’ money to bail them out. Future historians of our era will scorn at how today’s tweets proposing the improvement of workers’ rights or the introduction of state-regulated universal healthcare were met with angry cries of ‘socialism’ or “show us where this ever worked”.

We’re not painting a utopia where all these things are not happening anymore. But we believe that post-COVID we will be entering a world where the current ideological inertia towards these destructive aspects of our economic and political order will be met with puzzlement.

These two reasons — an inability to grasp complexity, and moral anaesthesia — go a long way towards explaining why we haven’t done anything about the old normal, despite knowing and seeing how it breaks people and our planet. Together these two reasons have added up to a hegemony. Hegemony is one of those terms that regularly lead academics to produce the kind of exasperating expositions that are usually reserved for the politics of the Vatican. One common meaning of hegemony is a lasting grip on power that allows the power holder to dominate a political arena effectively and enduringly. In a world where dog eats dog, hegemony in this sense is something to strive for, and the thinker who is forever associated with it is Macchiavelli.

[image: Jernej Furman]

We think of hegemony in a different way, as a form of cognitive captivity. Hegemony is a situation in which we are unable to see beyond our cognitive, moral, and practical horizon. We live, work, breathe and feel in a world that makes sense to us, where everything is more or less self-evident. The shape of that world, its obvious, uncontested meaning, is hardwired into our very language. When we hear every expert, politician and news anchor use the word “market” over and over again, we assume that that’s how our economy is — and should be — organised; not as an intricate ensemble of laws, rules, regulation, policy, customs, programs, and informal agreements, supported by business and government that favour one party and stack the deck against others. That incontestable character of our everyday reality is dependent on the essentially bounded nature of our perceptions. Wittgenstein, the thinker associated with this meaning of hegemony, gave a famous illustration. Think of someone, he said, who is imprisoned in a room with the door unlocked. So, why doesn’t he just walk out? Because has been socialised all his life with doors opening outwards, while this one opens inwards. It simply doesn’t occur to him to pull at the door instead of pushing it. He is stuck. That’s hegemony — pushing the door of our neoliberal world order instead if pulling it and walking inside another, better world.

Our diagnosis is that we are caught in a hegemonic situation. The values and practices of neoliberal democratic capitalism have invaded not only our economic institutions and our procedures for collective decision making, but also our private beliefs and aspirations. But that does not necessarily explain why it doesn’t occur to us to pull instead of push the door. Neither does it explain why many of us don’t even see themselves as trapped in an untenable situation. What has bridled this flight of our imagination? The answer is that imagination is only half the story. The world is self-evident because it rests upon practices. Practices, routines, into which we have been thoroughly socialised and which are held in place by institutions, beliefs, understandings, ideologies and identities. These practices, moreover, are closely interconnected. That’s the complexity part of our story. Try to reform one aspect of this dense structure (for example, introduce sustainable production methods) and you run into another set of institutions and practices that push back (the international finance system, or the large network of carbon subsidies, for example). Resistance to change is not so much a psychological quality but the effect of being caught in a web of practices. When the solutions to improve the current situation are framed in the same terms as the current situation, you know you are in a hegemonic situation. Or, reversely, when reasonable proposals are met with incredulity, dismissed as impractical or not worthy of serious discussion, you know that you are facing hegemonic trouble.

This is the normal that led to the COVID-19 world. How do we escape from it? Over the next three days, we will outline a path towards a new, better normal. Part 2 is here.