In a word: It was the virus that did it. But epidemics pass, and once the crisis is over, capitalism will return to what it does best – generating prosperity. There will be a new stock boom for those who managed to sell while the selling was still good. While patiently waiting for history to resume its felicitous course, we take heart in stories of jovial resilience – of people singing arias on their balconies in Italy, or applauding with open windows at 20:00 o’clock in Belgium. In this scenario, capitalism is still just the place for a Snark – for pursuing the good life, as politicians, academics and pundits keep repeating. It must be, therefore, true.
2/ Capitalism could vanish
“In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away—
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.”
Under a second scenario, memory and common sense take a different path. We remember that the recovery after Great Financial Crisis still felt, for many people, like a crisis. The stable jobs that had been lost to automation and global competition were replaced by precarious, poorly paid gigs. Deaths from despair were on the rise. The pandemic came on top of an overwhelming feeling of unsafety and insecurity that defined the life of the 99 per cent in the early twenty-first century. Global capitalism had delivered great affluence to a very few, whose wealth translated into political influence and power. But the same capitalism created not just a precarious class, but a precarious multitude. For the sake of competitiveness in a globally integrated market, unprofitable services like education and healthcare had shrunk, while labour contracts and other income sources had become ever more insecure, even for the highly-skilled and some of the well-paid.
It was insecurity amidst apparent affluence that fostered the spread of ‘populism’ already in the ‘roaring 1990s’ – the most prosperous decade of the twentieth century. That insecurity already breeds death, in slow, almost invisible increments, even in normal times. But a pandemic, mismanaged, brings mass death, which transforms societies and human nature.
To this we add the increasing sense that urgent action to save the planet is also a matter of life-and-death, not of life-style. We note that many of the things we now forego, from travel to gadgets and ever-bigger houses, we can in fact do without. Instead we develop a taste for some rather un-capitalist things, such as paid sick leave, access to culture as a public service, and spirited acts of solidarity.Print