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The pandemic and its societal implications

Everything Must Change! The World After Covid-19
Forfatter: Renata Avila og Srećko Horvat
Forlag: OR Books (USA)

COVID-19: In a newly published interview anthology about the pandemic, Roger Waters says that war and climate change are killing us faster than anything else, but the breathing pause that began in March 2020 may still open up other alternatives. At the same time, the entire anthology presupposes digital technology – for which we can all be grateful.

(PS. This article is machine-translated from Norwegian)

DiEM25 stands for Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 and is a radical movement that aims to recreate the EU as a progressive project where social justice, human values, global solidarity and ecological sustainability guide policy. The network was started in 2016, and the initiators were Greece's former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis and the Croatian philosopher Srećko Horvat. DiEM25 defends the European project with beaks and claws. They were negative to Brexit, but are in favor of far-reaching reforms within the framework of binding international cooperation. The main enemies are neoliberalism, nationalism and capitalism.

When the world went into hibernation in March last year, people reacted differently. Some became apathetic and inactive and vegetated in front of Netflix while sweeping aimlessly around their phone. Others regarded the slow time as a free space to be exploited. Horvat belonged to the latter category, and while sitting in isolation in Vienna, he decided to create the television channel DiEM25 TV, which would show conversations and interviews with leading progressive intellectuals about the implications of the pandemic. As the shutdown was virtually global, few had trouble saying yes.

The conversations that make up this book in an edited form were recorded and sent within a few weeks in the spring of 2020. The contributors include well-known names such as Noam Chomsky, Richard Sennett, Saskia Sassen, Brian Eno, Slavoj Žižek, Tariq Ali, David Graeber and Shoshana Zuboff – but also a lot for me new acquaintances. All are dialogues between two. One of the two editors participates in many, but not all. The common denominator is the pandemic and its societal implications.

The global precariat

The book's clearest message is that the pandemic has been a magnifying glass. In particular, it has clarified and reinforced inequality. This applies both globally, nationally and locally. Sennett, who leads a UN program for sustainable urban development, talks about how the pandemic has affected class and race differently in big cities, especially in the US, while Sassen (who is also married to Sennett) shows how differences between cities in the north and south come about expression.

The magnifying glass also highlights other societal differences. In the first phase of the pandemic, China provided medical assistance to Italy, while Russian doctors traveled to Venezuela, and Cuba contributed in several countries. By comparison, the President of the United States behaved like a pirate, among other things by seizing a load of bandages on his way to Germany. The Indian state of Kerala did a lot right, both from above and below. A women's organization with four and a half million people set up washbasins with disinfectant, while the state government quickly upgraded the primary health care service.

Global differences were also made visible in new ways. Liberia had a total of three respirators, while Mali, with a population of nineteen million, had fifty-six.

Had the anthology been made a year later, it would also have hailed comments on vaccine nationalism and the proportion vaccinated in Africa compared to Europe. The global precariatone, which was difficult before the pandemic, had its room for maneuver further reduced, and as Gael García Bernal recalls, we all live in the same country now, and the country is called capitalism. It creates both wealth and poverty, inclusion and exclusion (besides destroying the planet). No one should imagine that all people are equally valuable. It is still the case that one North Trøndelag resident is equivalent to half a million Chinese, as a North Trøndelag local newspaper editor explained to the deputy journalist Per Egil Hegge well over half a century ago.

Many of the contributors criticize slogans such as "we are all in the same boat". It is, of course, true that the richest can entrench themselves on private islands, in spacious villas or – if they are sufficiently paranoid – private shelters. When the term "essential workers" (which in Norway, curiously enough, was called "socially critical") was established, the world empire was nevertheless reminded that they are fundamentally dependent on the masses of people who work for them, directly and indirectly. In the book, Žižek expresses indignation that the elites thank all the brave and loyal workers who take to the streets and work for them, but neither he nor any of the others write about how the pandemic will be a catalyst for automation and robotization – which will make them richest less dependent on healthy and obedient workers.

Digitization and freedom

There is always a danger that restrictions on personal freedom in a crisis situation will be continued after the crisis is over, and it is no surprise that many of the contributors in this system-critical anthology warn that this could happen. Brian Eno draws the lines back to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, recalling that it led to "this wonderful phrase from the 21st century – 'For security reasons'', which has since become part of the air we breathe.

Renata Avila

At the same time, the pandemic has also had another effect, which could have been emphasized more here. Ece Temelkuran says that "the current pandemic asks us to do exactly what fascism would have demanded: isolation, restrictions, atomization and social distance". First, this is not true. Fascism is a community ideology that cultivates inner solidarity by creating hatred and external boundaries. Secondly, the same could have been said about communism. Thirdly, it is a fact, which could have been looked at more closely, that governments around the world have done the exact opposite of neoliberalismns bud. They have banned activities that contribute to economic growth, by restricting mobility and demanding that citizens slow down. They have also introduced state control and sanctions in recognition that the market is insufficient to govern a society.

We all live in the same country now, and the country is called capitalism.

The pandemic has not only been a magnifying glass, but also an accelerator, not least in terms of digitization. The migration of a number of human activities from physical space to cyberspace has been going on for a long time, but relatively slowly – after March 2020, things really took off. Sennett is positive about the development. He sees tools like Zoom in the light of the weakened public in the last century and regards the possibility of communicating frictionlessly (and deterritorialised) as a salvation for the public.

Shoshana Zuboff is less optimistic, and sees – like Evgeny Morozov – more surveillance than freedom in these digital platforms. For my part, I am against Sennett's view, although Zuboff is right in pointing out that there is an epistemic difference between us small people and the big tech companies, ie an abyss between what I can know about them and what they can know about me.

A window of opportunity

Not all conversations appear to be directly relevant to the pandemic. John Shipton writes mostly about his son Julian AssangeDiEM25 is an active supporter of Assange – mentioned in many of the dialogues); Larry Charles writes mostly about humor as system criticism, while Kenneth Goldsmith describes an alternative, democratizing World Wide Web.

Varoufakis still interprets most in light of the financial crisis in 2007–08. All of this is interesting in itself, but contributes to the book occasionally losing focus. One is also reminded of how quickly the discourse on the pandemic has developed. Virtually everyone mentions Trump (now a distant, if unpleasant, memory), and most assume that the pandemic will be over in a few months.

The best of the dialogues are those that not only show that the pandemic is a magnifying glass, but also that it can be a window of opportunity. The isolation and the unreal state of emergency that characterized the whole world last spring, at best, triggers high-level high thinking, where the pandemic is seen as part of a larger pattern. Sassen talks, for example, about the loss of local knowledge – "when it comes down to it, our big world is a collection of localities" – which may be counteracted when the pace slows and gravel in the machinery of globalization. As an extension of this reasoning, Johann Hari mentions a farmer in Cambodia who suffered from depression after losing a leg when he stepped on a forgotten landmine. The local doctor did not prescribe any medication, but suggested that the man get a cow, so that he escaped the now painful passage into the rice fields. The depression passed. Perhaps the respite the pandemic has given us can make it possible to mobilize enough curiosity to discover this type of locally based knowledge. It is not too late, more than a year after these dialogues took place.

Different hopes

The most valuable of the dialogues are those that point forward. The anarchist Graeber points out that now that the pause button is activated, the breathing pause can be used to plan a world based on values ​​other than predation and profit. Waters mentions an Indian cricketer who recently tweeted that he can see the Himalayas from his house for the first time, as the air pollution is so greatly reduced. Vijay Prashad strikes a blow for a global currency that is free from the dollar, and again Sennett thinks highly of urban planning that provides maximum quality of life without exposing its inhabitants to the danger of infection. High-rise blocks with narrow lifts may not be the best solution from now on. Eno, for its part, believes that the timing will be perfect for abolishing tax havens, now that we realize that the world is intertwined, and that solidarity is also necessary for selfish reasons – as no one is safe until everyone is safe.

Several also mention that it is time to introduce civil wages (universal minimum income), which has also been proposed in Norway. Žižek, who constantly defines himself as a communist, for his part sounds like a Scandinavian social democrat when he describes his communism. He limits the ideal to "three things: a relatively efficient state, capable of overriding market principles, organizing health care and keeping people alive, complemented further up by strong, active international cooperation, and further down by local mobilization."

There should be opportunities to confiscate this type of undeserved wealth.

This modest program has in part all been implemented in many countries, for that Tariq Ali says: "This pandemic has shown to everyone that government intervention is necessary and that neoliberalism must be rejected." It is all the more annoying, of course, that the richest people have still not been asked to cover their share of the bill. Some of them are even looking for tax havens as they are asked to pay 0,85 percent in wealth tax. There should be opportunities to confiscate this type of undeserved wealth.

Og Roger Waters condenses the essence of many interventions, from Chomsky to Sennett, when he concludes that the pandemic may fertilize the idea that “we could discover a more ecumenical and just world, a world in which we humans cooperate and, as a consequence, give ourselves a future – as the current model is neither sustainable nor feasible ». This is the hope the pandemic gives, and which is occasionally expressed during this collection.

Strengthened society

Many are pessimists, some too much, and that is understandable. Horvat's introduction is angry and impatient, and he mentions, among other things, that Elon Musk boasted about how the United States was behind the coup against Evo Morales in Bolivia to ensure access to lithium – a mineral Musk depends on in its industrial projects. "We coup whoever we want," Musk tweeted. At the same time, Horvat adds, the many critical voices that have emerged during the pandemic show that there is a society out there, and not just detached individuals. Yes, and I would add that the pandemic has strengthened this society, not only by showing how globalization creates inequality, vulnerability and destruction, but also because it has forced us to communicate globally, seamlessly and digitally. This whole anthology presupposes just that digital the technology, for which we are all in all grateful – and by the way, Zoom owns itself, unlike Teams and Skype.

Fossil drug addicts countries like Norway are about to opt out of the good company.

It has been over a year since these talks were recorded, but the pandemic is not over. As I write this, in August, I see that mortality in the UK is now at its highest since March – at a time when 75 percent of the adult population has been vaccinated. At the same time, this book, a time picture from the spring of 2020, reminds us that the discourse and practice of the pandemic and the world is changing rapidly.

Since last is another gloomy climate report from IPCC published [see page 2], we have had a summer marked by heat waves, forest fires and floods on several continents, and fossil drug-addicted countries such as Norway are about to opt out of the good company. The situation is still fluid – and therefore still hopeful.

Thomas Hylland Eriksen
Professor of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo.

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